This blog post first appeared on Coach Parents, the blog of Laura Markovitz, a parent coach with an LLB and Psych (Hons), and a PCI Certified Parent Coach®. Republished with kind permission.
The other day a friend of mine asked me this question, "Do you ever lose it with your kids?"
As an initial response, I had a quick sarcastic internal dialogue that went something like this.
"Um you mean with those two boys who can make an instruction like 'Go brush your teeth' seem like the most unreasonable, inhumane and unfair interruption from whatever vital task they are performing at the time, like dribbling a ball down a passage.
"Um you mean my kids who have perfectly attuned hearing for things that they want to hear but have an incredible capacity to shut out unwanted interference...
"No, no, no I never lose it with my kids. I remain centred and grounded at all times, I am the epitome of calm no matter what level of uncooperative and defiant behaviour gets lobbed my way."
But what I said out loud was something along the lines of, "Are you joking?! Of course I lose it with my kids. We all lose our temper with our kids sometimes."
Thing is, I’m human. I am not and do not aspire to be a robotic mother, an inauthentic mother or even some unobtainable non-existent, perfect mother.
Sometimes they screw up and sometimes we screw up. They are meant to be screwing up a lot more than we are by virtue of the fact that they are the kids who are still learning and we are the adults who should have picked up a bit of wisdom along the way.
Obviously, there is space for a firm tone and an expression of frustration and anger when our buttons have been pushed one too many times. But when we are left with that feeling that we have sunk to their level or lower in terms of throwing our toys, when we have exacerbated rather than ameliorated a challenging situation, then we have gone too far. What we do in the aftermath of our tantrums has far-reaching implications, sometimes more far reaching than the tantrums themselves.
So, what to do when it all feels like it’s gone wrong?
1. Acknowledge it
Instead of pretending that it never happened and doing the big sweep-under-the-carpet move, say it like it is. "I know I really screamed at you. I don’t like screaming and I could’ve handled that better." Things swept away always come back to bite us at some point in different shapes and forms.
If we aren’t up to talking about what happened straight away, that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. Some distance from our anger, disappointment and frustration can assist in giving us some perspective.
It doesn’t necessarily mean we need to have a whole big contrived sit-down meeting about what happened, we can talk about things while we are doing something else, like driving kids somewhere, making supper or playing a game. We can say things like, "I haven’t felt great about what happened last week so I wanted to chat about it with you."
Saying sorry is about taking responsibility for our role in what went wrong.
This doesn’t mean that everything that went pear-shaped is our fault! Let’s not kid, if they had just listened... The fact that I have repeated something 2 000 times, their flat-out refusal to comply, their disrespectful and downright rude responses are relevant pieces of the puzzle. But they are not the whole puzzle.
Of course, it is reasonable for me to have a whole bunch of negative feelings towards my unruly, defiant and disrespectful offspring in the moment, but what I do with those feelings is key and when things have gone ugly, I need to take responsibility for my lashing out, my sarcasm, my shouting, my poor response.
Psychologist Harriet Lerner talks about some important elements of an apology in her book Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. "Part of a true apology involves showing empathy and remorse. Without authentic feeling behind your apology, it may sound robotic and insincere." She also warns against the danger of over-apologising – those apologies that go on and on, begging for forgiveness that end up being manipulative and counter-productive in becoming irritating and forcing our kids to console us.
Why try and repair things after they have gone wrong?
Our kids learn from us
We are role-modelling left right and centre for our kids! If we can be authentic parents, we can show them that we all screw up sometimes, that screwing up isn’t the end of the world but that there are better ways to handle things and that we would prefer to handle things in a different way in the future.
We can show them that taking responsibility for our actions is often hard but that its important. We can share with them that life is not all about who started it, but often rather about who was able to manage their reactions better. We can encourage but not force them to see their role in what has transpired.
These lessons go a long way in how they are learning to be with us, their siblings and friends. When we acknowledge our role in something, it helps us reconnect with our kids in an honest and authentic way.
Is it too much?
If you feel like the percentage of time your kids are defiant, uncooperative and rude is too high and you are losing it too often, then something does need to change. You may need to get some help with finding other ways to manage things or work with the baggage we so often bring to our parenting. Ultimately none of us want to be stuck in battle and survival mode. It’s not a great place to be.
For me, knowing that there are ways to come out of – and dare I say it, potentially learn from – a negative parental episode, feels important and helpful in the highs and very real lows of parenting.