It doesn’t always end up the way you expected. In your imagination it was like a dream. A pure life you would get to love and be loved by. Someone you could influence to be a better part of this world. Sometimes we even hope they’ll be better than us.
Yet, it doesn’t always turn out how we thought. Divorce happens, parents fight, step-parents and half/step siblings enter the picture, and sometimes they experience a bigger trauma like loss or abuse. We always want to protect the tiny humans in our lives, but we cannot protect them from life itself. So what happens after they’ve gone through difficult transitions, experiences, and changes? What are you supposed to do with the screaming child in front of you?
Out of exhaustion, most parent
sdo one of two things: 1. anything to get them to stop screaming (you wanted another bowl of ice cream? have at it) and/or 2. set harder limits to show how much we mean business (you’re sad because you can’t do X? well keep crying and you won’t be able to do Y or Z either!). In other circumstances, we might power struggle. We all know what it sounds like: “No, you may not…” “Yes I can!” “No, you may not.” “YES I CAN!,” The moment you have gotten into a fight with a child, you have already lost. So, what’s a well-meaning parent to do?
The opposite of what you feel like you want to do when you’re angry. If you feel like screaming back, speak in a soft, slow tone. If you feel like giving them whatever they want, stick to the limit you’ve set. If you feel like taking even more away from them, take a deep breath and stick to the original stance you took. When they’re screaming and saying hurtful things, you tell them you love them and are there with them through their feelings. When you want to tell them to go to their room or into time out, you sit with them and help them learn to calm (since if they knew how, they’d be doing it already).
What can this look like?
A child is having a feeling that is flooding them. They could be feeling angry, sad, scared, alone, confused, etc. They’re sent to their room to calm down, but don’t know how and end up destroying the room or punishing themselves inside. When I was helping families in-home, this is where I would come in. I sit down in the doorway of their room, only set limits when it is about safety, and tell them I’m here and will support them through what they’re going through (when it is my daughter, I add “I love you very much”). They’ll scream at me, throw small objects at me, demand I get out, say I don’t care and that I don’t understand. I don’t flinch, get mad, or react in any way. I stick to my words about caring for them and being with them through their feelings. I reflect and validate the concerns they’re yelling about in a soft, gentle, understanding voice. After some time (could be 2 minutes, could be 2 hours), I’ll hear them start to tire. Their voice will quiver, their cries forced, longer pauses between screams. At this point, I’ll put out something regulating. Could be a mind jar (a recipe I’ll share in another post), blowing bubbles, relaxing music, deep breathing, or an affectionate story. I invite them to join, but don’t demand it and am not hurt when they scream, “NEVER” with the last of their energy. Low and behold, they’ll ask a question, for a turn, or just sit quietly with me. Once I see they’re able to completely relax (crack a smile, deep sighs, body relaxing… this could be hours later), I’ll calmly, softly, and lovingly ask what happened for them earlier. I’ll validate any and every feeling they had, keep firm on my limits, apologize if I lost my cool at some point, and ask them what would be more helpful next time. I’ll thank them for talking and if it is my daughter, I’ll remind her how much she’s loved.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I’ll be honest, it doesn’t always go quite that way. Sometimes it takes forever, sometimes I have to switch tactics, sit in silence for a long while, or help them into a safer room. Sometimes they won’t talk about what went wrong, they won’t help problem solve for next time, or they’ll ramp back up again once calm. I have to remind myself in those difficult moments, either with my child or another’s, that it isn’t an outcome I’m going for. I am not there to win my side, I’m there to be with them. To help them find ways of calming when they’re overwhelmed. I’m there with my daughter to love her in that moment, red faced, tears, screams, snot… Love doesn’t mean sending them to their room when I’m overwhelmed, love means looking at them in the face of the worst they feel, and loving them anyway. Simply by changing the intention I have when I approach, the outcome will be different. They’ll feel the difference, and as you do this more and more, they’ll get better with responding to it. Soon they’ll learn to recognize when they’re getting upset and pull out their own regulating activity without your prompting.
Remember, your goal as a parent is only to get it right 1/3 of the time. Release the pressure to be a perfect parent- there isn’t one. Work on doing well 1/3 of the time and apologizing when you mess up the other 2/3. Forgive your mistakes, and theirs. Focus on what you can do right now to help them become good people. Hint: it starts with feeling like a good person yourself.
Need a good parenting book? I recommend:
- Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control
- Brainstorm (for parents of teens)
- Parenting from the Inside Out
- ScreamFree Parenting
- Peaceful Parent, Happy Child
Take care out there,