When my younger son was two, he told my husband and me, “If I want to do what I want to do, then I can.” We laughed, admiring his strong toddler spirit. I don’t think either of us expected that attitude to hold steady throughout the years, but it did.
To say that he is a strong-willed child is an understatement. He’s intelligent and clever, and has a very strong sense of what he wants – and does not want – to do. On more than one occasion he has asked “Why do you get to tell me what to do?” and “Why are there even parents, anyway?”
It’s been a challenging journey, but one I have felt prepared to handle. I’ve worked with children for more than 25 years. I’ve spent many hours in training to learn how to handle tough behavior.
I believe that difficult behaviors are communication, and that parents need to decipher what is being communicated in a calm, empathetic manner. I’ve done a lot of reading about brain development, parenting, and discipline. I use positive guidance, not random punishments. I think my kids deserve to know why we do things, so I explain the limits I set while still holding firm on those limits. I strive to talk to my kids, not yell at them, knowing that it’s very difficult to learn – or even hear - anything if someone is yelling at you.
But sometimes, despite all I know and believe, I hit a wall. Last week I had a major “meltdown” on a public street over an incident that, in hindsight, was minor. There I was, ranting and raving, doing all the things I know won’t bring about the changes I hope for. I knew that I was being unreasonable. But I simply couldn’t stop.
Afterwards, I felt guilt, shame, and a fair amount of judgment against myself. How could I have let myself get so out of control? I was harder on myself than I ever am on my kids when they fall apart. And a friend pointed that out: That if their behavior doesn’t make them bad kids, my behavior doesn’t make me a bad parent. Another friend pointed out that I had taught my son an important lesson: That we can take responsibility for our actions, and do what we can to repair the damage.
Which is exactly what I did. A vigorous walk home helped me calm down, and when we arrived, I sat my son down and apologized for my behavior. I let him know I didn’t want to act that way. He said it was his fault and I corrected him. Regardless of his behavior, I have a responsibility to control myself, I said. And I wanted to help him control his actions too. He sadly told me that he feels like he always fails. I told him we’d find ways to help him succeed. We worked on a system together, one that we were both happy with when it was finished. He went to bed smiling and humming. I breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps I hadn’t permanently damaged him after all.
I know I’m not the only parent who has ever lost it, but I wanted to be sure the experience taught me something. I realized that if I, with my fully developed adult brain, could lose control so completely, then it’s no surprise that he does. I could finally understand just what he might be feeling, and I believe him when he says he doesn’t want to freak out, but sometimes just can’t stop.
In the days since this happened, my son’s behavior has improved dramatically. I believe that what made the difference is how I behaved after the yelling. I didn’t try to justify or defend my actions. I didn’t pretend it never happened. Instead, I did exactly what I would want my son to do. Perhaps you’ve found yourself in a similar situation. Below are five things to do when things haven’t gone as planned. Following these tips can help you re-connect with your child and help you keep your cool the next time!
Apologize and Listen:
The first step in reconnecting is to acknowledge that your behavior was inappropriate. Keep it short, and don’t place blame on your child. Ask what you could do differently in these situations, and really listen to the answers.
Long after your child has moved on, you might find yourself dwelling on the incident. I know I did – so much so that I posted on social media, looking for reassurance. And what I realized from the responses is that, most people have done something they wished they could take back. Move on, and do your best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Know Your Triggers:
One of the most important things you can do to prevent yourself from over-reacting to a situation is to identify what makes you angry or stressed in the first place. If you know what sets you off, you can be more aware of your own reactions.
When you stop to think constructively about what happened, you can plan how to better handle similar situations in the future. What were the factors that contributed to the incident? Often, as it was in my case, there is a build-up of issues. Having a plan to handle these issues is always better than simply reacting.
Take Care of Yourself:
I hadn’t slept well the night before my meltdown, so I didn’t get up that morning to exercise like I usually do. I hadn’t eaten anything since early in the day. By the time evening rolled around, I was tired, hungry and very cranky. It didn’t take much to set me off. If you take care of yourself as well as you do your children, you will be much better equipped to deal with the inevitable challenges of parenting.