Staying calm in the face of a screaming or irrational child having a tantrum is no easy task. (Especially if it is in public or around friends & family. You feel like everyone is watching and judging. And they probably are. You just gotta get over that. It’s hard.) Let’s start with you.
We often find it hard to handle our emotions when our children have meltdowns. That often gives them power over us.
★ I’m gonna say one kinda harsh but true thing, give you a parenting principle that kept us sane, and then list a bunch of practical tips to help you hold on to your sanity.
The Kinda Harsh Thing
Your kids aren’t driving you crazy, you are. Don’t take offense. Someone had to tell me that same thing and it was a game changer for my wife and I. At one point we had 4 kids 5 and under. I get it. But kids are just busy being kids with their little kids’ brains. We have to be the adults. Sometimes kids act out to get our attention or affection, but sometimes they are feeling things they aren’t equipped to process. Sometimes they are just tired. You “lose it” or are driven “crazy” only as much as you allow. Let that sink in.
Here’s a little something about your (fully developed) parent brain. When you are stressed to the max, totally about to lose it, and highly emotionally triggered, your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that does all the higher-order important brain stuff — like logic, predicting outcomes of words and actions, decision-making, impulse control, focusing your attention, processing feelings of empathy, compassion, shame, and guilt — that part of the brain gets “flooded” with the same stress hormones that put us into “fight or flight” mode.
At this point, your nervous system has kicked in and you are no longer the “normal” you. To your body, it’s the same as being charged by a bear. You will not think, act, or speak, like the “normal” you. It’s not your best self, it’s your biology. This is the “driving me crazy” feeling that you feel. Under stress, we regress. We either shut down or lash out. (Sometimes at our kids, sadly.) You will accomplish little to no parenting good in this state and you may do harm.
Parents need to recognize when they are being “flooded” and call a “Time-Out.” This might mean asking your partner to step in. This might mean getting the kids into the car and just going home. This might mean asking your kids to go sit on their beds. It takes about 20 minutes for our brain to recover from flooding. During this time, do what soothes you and calms you down.
Now think of a 4-year-old brain. They are not even close to fully developed. They can be flooded just by saying “no” to a piece of candy in the check-out line or simply being tired. When they are flooded, they throw tantrums, melt down, and act out. They need time for the floodwaters to recede from their little brains, too. Sometimes they can’t calm themselves down or soothe themselves. You might have to take an active part in that. That doesn’t mean condoning misbehavior. You can address it later after they have calmed down. It means they are not going to learn any “lesson” while flooded.
We have to be the adult, the grown-up, the parent, the one with a fully-developed brain.
The One Parenting Principle That Helped Us Keep Our Sanity
Kids need routines, rituals, structure, and boundaries. This makes their young lives predictable, secure, and safe but it also provides them with the freedom to be kids. Oh, and these things can also help mom and dad to stay sane. It might take a little work upfront, but it will save you from so many tantrums, meltdowns, plus lots of time in the long run. You need a morning routine and a bedtime routine for sure, minimum. Post them at your kids’ eye-level. Use pictures if they can’t read yet. A structured day is a less stressful day.
(Whether these are helpful may depend on you and your kids’ ages & maturity levels.)
- Separate the child and the behavior. Be careful how you say things.
- Sometimes kids need to go outside and burn off energy.
- The Art of Redirection: “Instead of jumpin’ off the deck, why don’t you see who can run around the house the fastest?” (Notice: You didn’t say, “Don’t jump off the deck!”)
- Sometimes we had to pretend we were watching other people’s kids. Seriously.
- Enforce Quiet Time — Even if they’ve outgrown naps. Kids can sit on their bed and read or play for 30 minutes quietly (maybe longer) while you catch a breather.
- Include them in what you are doing—cleaning, cooking, etc. Give them a little job to do.
- Rotate toys. We would pack up some of their toys and put them in the attic. Less clutter, and when you bring those toys back, it’s like Christmas. Rotate out some other toys.
- Read to them. Seriously, this should be a top priority at any age.
- Try to do something new every week or so — puppet show, art exhibition, dance-off.
- Have one of their friends over. (Take turns with another parent.) 1 Kid + 1 Friend = 0 Kids. I don’t know how that math works, but it does.
- Take advantage of reading days at the library or bookstores or a “Parent’s Night Out” at your church or YMCA. [When things open back up.]
- Get up before they do and you are ahead of the game. Don’t play “catch-up” all day. Have your own morning and bedtime routines. Take care of yourself.
- Structured playtime — “It’s 1:30! That’s Lego Time!” Unstructured playtime — “It’s 1:30! Time to play whatever you want in your room!” (Or outside, if that is a safe option.)
- Teach kids not to tattle-tale on each other and learn to work out their own differences. (Tattle-tales got in trouble at our house unless there was blood involved.)
- Have some “special things” they don’t always have access to. Then when you break it out, it is an INCENTIVE & EVENT. “Play-Doh! Just after we clean up lunch!”
- Break bigger tasks down into smaller tasks — “Clean your room” = “Put the books back on the bookshelf, then report back!” “Okay, now put your stuffed animals up.” And so on.
- We learned that each of our kids had what we called “Pressure Points.” Learn them. One child hated standing in the corner for “Time-Out.” Another kid loved it, but hated being sent to his room. Yet another child loved being sent to their room, but hated chores. They are all unique individuals. What gets one’s attention may not get another’s.
- Use a hula-hoop for cleaning their room —“Clean up the part of the floor in the hula-hoop!” Then move the hoop to the next area.
- Time chores — make them a race, game-ify things. “Let’s see if you can get ready for bed before the timer goes off!” See if they can top their best time.
- Don’t just say, “Time to get out of PJs. Get dressed!” Give them choices: “You can choose between this outfit or this one.” Trust me, this solves a bunch of problems before they become problems.
- Charts on the fridge are your friend (but only if you are consistent with it).
- If any behavior gets a “big reaction” from you, you will see it again. And again. And again. Choose wisely what you react to…
- Have older kids help with younger kids. (But be careful not to put adult responsibilities on them. That can breed resentment.)
- Sometimes you just have to put a kids’ movie on and chill for 90 minutes. It’s okay.
- If you have more than one child, try to get some one-on-one time with each of them doing what they like to do. It can be 10-15 minutes twice a day.
- “SNACK TIME!” Diffuses many chaotic situations. Ah, the power of some fruit, cheese and crackers!
- Do some exercises with your kids. It lets you blow off some steam and gets them moving and sets a good example. Plus, it’s just fun.
- Try to see situations through their eyes. Cultivate empathy.
- Know your triggers. Be prepared for them and prepare your children for them. “We are going grocery shopping. Please do not ask for any candy. The answer is already ‘no’ so remember not to ask.”
- Love your child unconditionally. Let them know that you like and enjoy them too.
What is that saying about parenting? “The days are long, but the years fly by.” It’s so true. My kids are basically grown up now. Somewhere, deep down inside of me, I miss the insanity.
MAKE THIS SUMMER ONE THEY’LL NEVER FORGET.
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