I wrote this post two years ago, but I still struggle frequently with my tendency to overreact and blow up when parenting gets stressful. It was recently brought to my attention that I am the type of person categorized as a “hot responder” (Ahem. Everyone should have a good therapist.) in the psychology world. As such, I need to practice a whole lot of self-awareness, and it’s beneficial for me to have as many tricks in my keeping-cool repertoire as possible. I’m reposting this today because a few mamas I know and love are struggling with some challenges lately, and I thought it would be great to brainstorm some new ideas. So after you read this post, please post your favorite trick for staying calm in a crisis in the comments, or on my Facebook page!
Patience is a virtue, and unfortunately it is not at the top of my list of virtues. I have always struggled with keeping my cool when things become chaotic or stressful; my husband is the patient parent in our duo, whereas I am constantly managing my short fuse. I have always been wired this way, but as we all know, adding young children to the mix makes the playing field ripe for frustration, chaos, and maternal meltdowns.
Over the years I have tried a number of techniques to prevent me from losing my temper, particularly around my children. Obviously I have tried the old favorite, “Take deep breaths and count to ten,” which can be helpful and has its place. Sometimes when my six year old leaves me speechless, I regroup by giving myself a “time out” until I can regain my composure and figure out what exactly I need to say to her.
And sometimes, during the worst of the parenting “crises”, these strategies fall flat.
One evening, after arriving at my daughter’s dance studio, my six-year-old, one-year-old, and I were crammed in the bathroom stall, hurriedly changing out of school clothes before class. As I pulled my daughter’s shirt over her head, I noticed about a dozen holes all over.
“Izzy!” I exclaimed with alarm, “What happened to your shirt?”
“It was an accident,” she responded quickly, “My pencil accidentally poked holes in my shirt during math class.”
My first reaction was to be furious—she had ruined a perfectly good shirt! And then, almost immediately, I felt worried. It was no secret that my daughter, while an excellent reader and writer, struggled with math. It seemed clear that she had poked those holes due to her frustration and anxiety. Still, I felt I had to at least briefly address the situation, as destroying clothing was not an appropriate coping mechanism.
I was pleased with my calm tone when I replied, “We’ll have to talk about this at home and figure out what to do. You can probably do some jobs around the house to help us pay for the shirt.” I thought that was an adequate response- not overly punitive, but still authoritative.
My daughter went ballistic. “Why are you always mean to me?” she screamed, bursting into tears. “I’m going to run away! This is all my fault—I’m always a bad girl!”
For the record, hearing the words “bad girl” is a big trigger for me. I can’t think of anything more horrifying than my young daughter internalizing that she is “bad”. The wheels in my head were spinning out of control—I could not allow her to experience feelings of self-hatred and shame at six years old! I began to calmly remind her that she was not a bad girl, that we would talk about it later, that we loved her and she wasn’t in trouble, but it fell on deaf ears. Due to all the screeching and flailing. Attempting to stuff her legs into her tights was a lost cause, as she had gone into full-on toddler tantrum mode.
Mentally, I was scrambling, “Should we call a therapist? I need to email her first grade teacher ASAP…”
I had to think fast. I had to make a choice. A large part of me, the part that was in fight-or-flight mode, wanted to yell, pick up my hysterical daughter, and leave the dance studio immediately. But I knew that would send the wrong message. Any other day she wanted to get out of dance class, all she would have to do is have a horrific meltdown in the bathroom.
Parenting is like watching a slow motion action sequence. Of yourself. These scenes happen so fast, and your response makes such a difference. This was one of those moments when I needed to employ one of my more critical strategies for keeping my cool.
- My first line of defense is: Try to get inside her head. Or better yet, her heart. What is going on in your child’s mind and body right now? Is their heart pounding? Do they feel ashamed? Are they frightened? Sometimes putting myself in my child’s shoes defuses the situation for me.
- My second strategy is: Imagine myself at that age. Given that I have daughters, the older of whom is the spitting image of me at her age, it is easy to picture myself as the distraught six-year-old standing in front of me. Pretend it is six-year-old you who is crying. Sometimes this tactic is helpful for corrective emotional work on your own childhood traumas or hang-ups.
- Here is the last one: If all else fails, do it for your future self. No, not your elderly self looking back from your twilight years, I mean you- in two hours, or maybe 20 minutes. Stay calm if for no other reason than to spare yourself the experience of looking back with regret on words and actions you wish you could take back. Words that hurt, and moments where you feel you have lost all control. Make your future self proud. Later in the day, when you are debriefing your husband while sipping a glass of wine, you can say, “I am really proud of how I handled that tantrum today.”
Here’s the thing: we are all going to screw up sometimes. No mother is perfect. Sometimes our best intentions and all our preparations leave us flailing, and we lose our temper. Maybe we yell, or swear, or invent a consequence we later decide is inappropriate. (For what it’s worth, we calmed down for dance class, and after discovering how upset Izzy was about her homework and the pencil incident, we let the “paying us with jobs” consequence slide. Sometimes it is okay to backpedal.)
I would like to believe that during these “PARENT FAIL” moments, we have not done permanent damage to our kids. When I say or do something that makes me cringe, I immediately apologize and attempt to reassure my children, hopefully disengaging that “I’m a bad girl” response. I think there is value in our children watching us make mistakes and take responsibility for them. However, I don’t think it is appropriate for every day to include me (or any other parent) freaking out, exploding, and then apologizing later. I think that having a few different strategies in my bag of tricks increases my odds of keeping my cool in the heat of a meltdown.
What tricks do you have for staying calm in a crisis?
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If I’m in public, I kind of disassociate from my body. I have to focus entirely on her and shut all the nasty looks out. This is why I don’t leave the house with her very often. If I feel my temper getting out of control at home, I put her in her room for a time-out…until I’VE calmed down at least.
I worry about her getting that “bad girl” message too. Have you seen the movie “The Help”? I found that toddler heartbreaking. My mom is so critical and conditional with her affection that I would really feel I’d failed as a parent if my daughter felt like I did. But at the same time she’s very strong-willed and high-spirited, and we need to discipline her so those become positive rather than negative qualities in her life. She’s only 2.5, so we’re still learning. Something tells me we’ll be learning for her whole childhood!
Oh my God, I could hardly watch or read that part of The Help without sobbing. The toddler broke my heart too. I guess that is a big trigger with me- kids not feeling good about themselves or loving themselves. Not sure where it comes from for me; I think it’s great that you are so tuned into your own dynamic with your mom that you are mindful to avoid with your own child. At 2.5, so much of the “discipline” is just a necessary part of survival though. And yes, I doubt the learning is ending anytime soon for us.
What a wise woman you are. Good tactics all. Two other ones that I’ve used over the years: when I am really frustrated with a little one, I give him a hug. Not so I can strangle him, but so I can actually feel how little he is and be reminded that he is little and learning how to behave. As they get older, I use their memory as a trigger. I am very curious to see what my kids will remember and discuss about their childhoods when they are older. I don’t want them talking about how Mom lost her temper on a regular basis. I sometimes ask myself, “How do I want her to remember this moment?”
Christine, I love those ideas. Those are both really helpful- thank you so much for adding to the idea pool here!
Very wise advice Christine!
You’re a good mommy and I’m impressed you had the patience and wherewithal to remain calm in the face of a major meltdown. I have absolutely ZERO advice because I lose my temper on a weekly basis. I need to learn to simmer before I boil! The only thing that has worked for me is to have a sense of humor. I try to make light of the situation when possible. Good luck to all of us!
I’m sure there are some moms who are just wired to be more patient. I am not one of them- I have a short fuse too. It helps to put it out there, though! Thanks for sharing!
This is an excellent post, and while I’m not a parent, this advice could easily apply to any person in your life, not just children. Awesome job!
You’re so right that it can apply to more than just a parenting scenario- thanks for pointing that out. I appreciate your perspective and the compliment, too!
I’m so glad you were able to have dance class, she looks so cute. it’s a tough road this parenting and although we make massive mistakes some days, our children will grow up ok… and if they don’t then they’ll have great stuff for their therapists. I keep telling myself this…. and breathe…….
Yes, we’re definitely helping to fund their future therapist’s careers- ha!
Stephanien not only could I relate, but I have been there with the meltdowns even at dance class. I have two in dance now and now double the meltdowns. But I will say this, I think you truly summed up perfectly here and really a great blog article about the tough moments. I am with you that I have had my mommy fail moments, but I always to try to make amends with them my girls when this does happen. Also, Kevin is more the patient one out of the two of us, so yet I again I could so very much relate to this.
Thank you so much, Janine, I really appreciate you sharing! I think it helps to make amends, because with as chaotic as things get, Mommy Meltdowns are bound to happen. Dance class can be such a hassle, right?
Amen, Sister! I lose my cool way too frequently. Breakfast is our worst time of day. My kids hate the options because I won’t feed them sugary cereals, but once a week. So there is complaining or whining everyday, except cereal day, and maybe waffle day. We have the same issue at dinner, but my husband is there to help deal with their whining. I’ve realized that my response to their whining has to do with me and my desire to be a good mom and feeling like a failure when they’re not happy. I have all this internal work to do on myself and fear that by the time I figure out my crap, my kids will be grown and damaged. Then I think I should just let them eat the crap cereal so I don’t have to listen to the whining and feel like a failure. What do you think? I’m checking back for responses.
Isn’t it interesting which parts of the day are worst for people? OK, here’s my two cents on your breakfast problem. I personally think it’s great that you limit the sugary cereal to once a week. I honestly think that offering it more often wouldn’t help the complaining. Sometimes it seems that the more I give my daughter sweet treats, the more she wants them. Here’s my idea, which could totally suck, because right now I only have one child that can talk/reason with me, and you have three, so I may be way off here. One way we eliminate whining and complaining is as follows: “I know you want to have cereal today, and we’re having waffles instead. It would be really sad if you whined so much about the cereal, that you lose the privilege of having cereal on Friday. Our special cereal day is only for children who don’t whine for cereal during the rest of the week.” Like I said, that works for us, but we have ONE six year old…let me know what you think! I’m so glad you shared that dilemma…
I’ve done this in other situations and it’s worked, but I haven’t with our breakfast routine, so I’m going to try it. Thank you!!!
This was a fantastic post and really helpful to me. I love your strategies and I’m definitely going to use them the next time I feel like I’m going to lose it with one of my boys. Parenting is the hardest job ever and acknowledging our mistakes is healthy and will help both us and our kids in the long run. Thanks for sharing this.
Thanks Emily, I really appreciate hearing your feedback. Yes, it is definitely the hardest job ever, and it seems like the stakes are much higher than other jobs. The idea that you are responsible for other human beings’ welfare is daunting, and we are bound to make a lot of mistakes.
I’m cook tonight, and I keep sneaking away to read your post (the rice is still way too hard Daddy, honest..) Anyway, it doesn’t have to be funny, right? This is Mommy , for real keeping it real 😉 I love it when you share these moments, we all have them. And I love hearing your thought process. It’s the worst looking back and kicking yourself for losing your temper, so I do the same thing. I remember how bad I’ll feel. I also think about how I don’t want my kids to remember me angry when they think back to this time (if they even remember it). I’m big on hugging to diffuse a tantrum. My theory is to love it out. Cuddle, let them cry, then talk once the tantrum has gone. My boys call each other ‘bad boy’ and it hurts me. They’re only 2 and 3! They didn’t learn it from me. Honest!!!!!
I loved this post. I also have a short fuse, and I often find myself feeling badly after the fact at how I reacted to things. I find I’ve gotten a lot better in the last year or so, but every once in a while, I feel like I’m going to blow.
One thing I’ve been trying to do with my daughter is to remind myself that things don’t need to be done RIGHT THIS SECOND. It’s hard for me to do, but I don’t want my daughter to grow up to be like me, so I need to make a conscious effort to be more patient and let some stuff slide.
I really love your approach. I hope you’re able to keep it up!
Oh, and I just voted for you, as I do every night. Good luck!
I know this is going to sound cliche, but I simply think, “How important is this going to be in ten years?” If, in ten years, I see myself looking back at the situation and wondering why I ever got crazy over it, I stop right then and there. Example: In ten years time, how important are poking holes in a T-shirt going to be? They won’t be! I’d probably joke with her about it, ask her why it happened, and listen to her side. Obviously, holes in the t-shirt weren’t the root of the problem, only the result. Let’s make her comfortable in getting to the root and then show her how poking holes in the t-shirt didn’t help matters any. In fact, I might have even poked a hole or two in the t-shirt to ask her if it made her feel better. If she’d have said “no”, that would have left the door wide open to demonstrate why it wouldn’t help in the future either, and eliminate it from occurring again. Just my two cents. That and 3.98 more and you can get a cup of coffee at Starbucks. lol
Stephanie, you’re so fuckin’ awesome. I love this post.
And you don’t have to be funny every day. You just have to be you. And real. Which you are.
I have a really short fuse, too. With my son, when I feel like exploding at him, I remind myself how awful I felt more than a year ago now (that’s how badly I still feel about it) when I got so frustrated trying to get my then 2-year old maybe-autistic boy (I didn’t know that part, then) to comply in our $120 soccer class. After class, sweaty, really embarrassed and super frustrated, I said “why can’t you just have fun doing this? what’s wrong with you?” He cried and I immediately regretted saying such an awful thing (praying he’ll forget that completely and there are no psychological scars from it) and have regretted it ever since.
So, now, it’s easy for me to feel all over again how horrible that was of me to say and instead redirect myself. Not that I haven’t had bad parenting moments since then, because I’m sure there have been plenty.
I also have even said to myself out loud “I’m his favorite person in the world. This matters. Don’t screw it up.”
I love that you reminded us to remember ourselves at that age. It’s easy to forget the viewpoint of a sad, stressed-out kid wanting nothing more than some attention, understanding without having to explain anything and sometimes just a hug. Such great advice! I haven’t tried that with my son but am already feeling warm and gooey inside imagining what he’s thinking.
You’re such a great mommy! Hugs and LOVE to you.
Your comments always seem to make my day. Seriously. I am so glad you shared that story; I think we all have a memory like that. Mine was when Izzy was 2, and we were having this horrible bedtime standoff, and I closed her door and left her in her room screaming, and she proceeded to dump out all her toys. When I went in, furious, she picked up another basket to dump out and I stuck out my arm to stop her and she fell on her little bottom and cried and said, “Mommy, you pushed me!” and I felt like a monster. I HATE feeling that way. Thanks for the feedback, for real. You’re pretty fuckin’ awesome yourself.
Dude, right back at ya. Your comments always make my day, too. (side note, came here to comment back on this and seriously? your post for FTSF is up? What the F happened to the F being for FRIDAY? Not cool.)
thanks for the share that we all feel like that. You are the bomb. For real.
Humungo Loves and Hugs and Lovies Stuffs…
God, I’m a dumbass. Woke up thinking about that stupid comment. That’s what I get for staying up too late again! SORRY 🙁
Was trying to be funny but I wasn’t funny at all and it’s totally FRIDAY somewhere at midnight. Duh. Can you just delete the first half of that comment?
I really am an idiot. For real.
Oh my gosh, I still can’t believe you felt so bad about that! I mean, seriously, it’s true, it was totally Thursday night. You have a valid point, too- what’s up with link-ups starting the night *before*…Monday Listicles does that too sometimes. Your comment was totally funny, so please stop apologizing! xo
There is so much good advice in your post, I really love it!
I am glad that I do not lose my temper very often because I always feel so bad afterwards. And due to Sunny’s SN I always try to be extra patient and tell myself that he does not do on purpose what makes me mad at that special moment. Which is not always easy but most of the time I manage to stay calm.
I love your non-funny posts too! I agree that sometimes we do need to backpedal. I also believe totally in apologizing if I know that I was wrong. There is no better example to show kids that they can always respectfully question authority, if they feel they need to!
Thanks for these tips. I find myself losing my cool once in a while, but there’s little you can say to a cute toddler! I just grit my teeth and close my eyes!
Ah… I get this, and I love your tips!! We are all going to fall short and fail our kids more than once!! I love the idea of our future self- what a great check point in the throws of the crisis. Your honesty is what I love most about you, Stephanie. We have ALL been there.
Great advice! I’ve been thinking about this subject too. How I can control my anger more around my kids. I like this trick. I was thinking about sharing one myself that is currently helping me. But, the bottom line is that parenting is SO freaking hard in the stressful moments. But, you’re right, I don’t want to look back with regret, and I so frequently do. Great post!
I needed this! I had an “outburst” at my son’s school and I still feel bad about it. 🙁
All good pieces of advice. When my kids were young, I always found time and distance very helpful. The tough part was keeping everyone (including myself) calm till that time and distance kicked in.
I’m a parent and an autistic teacher, so melt downs are a part of my job. It’s always case by case, but when I can, planned ignoring keeps you sane, fits and tantrums occur for attention 90% of the time. Feeding it, makes it worse unless it’s for another reason. I’m great at staying completely calm, assessing the purpose of the tantrum and then waiting for the tantrum to cease before handling the original problem. Ex: toddler can’t have cookies in the store, fit, fit is happening because she can’t have what she wants, do NOT give her cookies, continue shopping however you can without dragging a screaming child, when screaming stops, explain that cookies are for after dinner or whatever, for autistic kidsi would havea photo of first store then dinner then cookies, which would totally work for a toddler if your toddler does this frequently.
My second child has obviously decided that it is his mission make sure I crack completely! He’s stubborn and he does not fear consequences. *sigh* I call for all the patience in the world to deal with him without crushing his spirit!
That didn’t help at all, did it? I’m just venting! 🙂
Oh I can relate to this, I am so bad at managing my temper when I’m stressed. I love your strategies. I just hope I can remember them “in the moment.” You know what I mean?