Maybe it’s a dinner plate left with half a meal on it. Or a screaming fit that feels endless. Maybe it’s deliberate testing in ways that only your child knows will grind on your every nerve. Perhaps it’s the wrong attitude at the wrong time. There are countless opportunities for your child’s behavior to draw out your not-so-good side. No parent has avoided being tested and triggered by their children’s words and actions, and, often, it takes a series of live-and-learn moments to bring us to a better understanding of how to avoid parent melt-downs alongside kid melt-downs.
Compassion – The Most Critical Tool
When kids act out (especially children who have experienced abuse, neglect, or other forms of trauma, rejection, and instability), they’re often exhibiting a very tender need in a less-than-optimal way. It may present as stubbornness or a power struggle, but we encourage you to try and see the world through the eyes of the child for that moment. You might see that he is in the midst of a transitional period – maybe he is missing a sibling, or struggling to form his identity despite missing or confusing pieces, or trying to make sense of all of the change and unpredictability in his life.
These moments of testing or crisis are when your child needs you most. It may be an opportunity for your child to realize that someone can manage their storm with them, and isn’t going to leave them when things get hard or when they lose control of themselves under pressure and pain. The unconditional love that this communicates back to your child can be very healing. None of this means condoning the behavior, but serves to coach him through the moment to use his words and other positive means to express his feelings, while showing him it’s safe for him to do so.
Think of compassion as your go-to anger-extinguisher. Keep it handy at all times.
Don’t Take It Personally
I have yet to meet the parent who has never heard the dreaded words, “I hate you” directed at them. It can make the blood boil in the moment, but, from a calm place, we know that hurtful words can be said merely to hurt someone, stop a perceived threat, express feelings of loss, or to alleviate pain. Remind yourself that it’s not personal, even if it feels personal. If you are able to, try to take a step back in that moment. Then, later, from a calmer and more thoughtful place, you may be able to reframe the situation in a way that will allow you to see the bigger picture behind a momentary hurtful outburst.
Holding the Space
For some children, regulating emotions is more difficult than for others. As the parent, it’s important for you to remind yourself that you can use your regulation tools to keep the situation from escalating, especially when your child may not be able to do this. This is often referred to as “holding the space.” If your child is in emotional crisis, you can coach and support him through the episode in a way that de-escalates the situation and keeps him safe. Any serious conflict which arose can be discussed and managed later.
Whether it’s a full-blown crisis, or merely nails on a chalkboard, practice recognizing when you or your child are too stressed or unable to be rational. If that’s the case, or if you’re temporarily unable to be supportive of your child’s emotional needs, take a break. Avoid engaging when it can only lead to escalation. You may spare one another many emotional wounds that wouldn’t be inflicted if you or your child had a break for your thinking to shift back to a more rational, calm place.
Facing the Mirror
“It’s just the way he…”
“I just can’t stand when she…”
A lot of times, the minor annoyances that really get to us are inexpiable and unimportant. We know we can’t really rationalize them. What are the types of things that trigger you? Perhaps a drawn out tantrum doesn’t faze you, while a white lie about having homework done causes you to fly off the handle. What is it about that that triggers you? Sometimes the answers are easy and sometimes they are complex and take time to appear.
Increased self-awareness can lead to more accountability and rationality in the moment, preventing you from reacting on his or her level.
The Balance Beam
When you take that step back, are you noticing that you are over-stressed and overwhelmed? In the bigger picture, you may find it helpful to identify ways that you can get some help to ease the tension of life’s demands. When we’re stressed and taxed, we lose the ability to manage ourselves and are significantly more likely to react sharply. It only takes a pin prick to set us off course. Seek support. You don’t have to do it all. You don’t have to do it alone. We’re here for your call.