It happens to all parents: From time to time we lose our shit. Whether we’re trying to get our kids out the door so we won’t be late for work again, or attempting to get 'em to bed so we can get some self-care time—we huff and puff, raise our voices, slam doors, and say some unbelievable (and unseemly) things.
We’re most likely to tantrum when we’re stressed by something unrelated to our kids, like when their behavior taps into some strong value held over from our own childhood, or when we have our own agenda, which our kids are successfully thwarting.
The trigger could be from feeling embarrassed by what our kids are doing, and by the fear of how others will perceive us as parents. It could also come from feeling disrespected (“my parents never let me speak to them that way”) or from our kids acting “inefficiently” or “irrationally,” taking forever to put on their clothes or making a huge deal of something absurdly minute. (Personal example: “Unnecessary” whining sends me over the edge!)
But hear this: You, your children, and your reaction to your children are normal! It’s important for us to accept and be kind to ourselves and our imperfections. But we’d still like to reduce these tantrums. We want to be able to catch ourselves earlier and stop ourselves before we’re (metaphorically) lying in the grocery store aisle kicking and screaming.
First we need time outs—not for our kids, but for us. Recognize what’s happening or just happened, be as kind to yourself as possible, then take a moment to help calm yourself: Remove yourself from the altercation, take a little extra time in the bathroom, or tag out and let another parent take over for a few minutes to give yourself space to breathe. Let your body calm down, refocus on what’s really important to you, and then re-engage.
Catching ourselves having tantrums, and then modeling how we calm ourselves and repair relationships is actually more helpful to our children, than if we’re always perfect and keeping our cool.
Optimal parenting is parenting right 33% of the time, messing up 67% of the time, recognizing our mess ups, and making corrections and repairs so our kids feel heard, supported, and connected through the process. By doing so we give them the freedom to be imperfect too—providing them with a practical model of how to master their own big and messy feelings.
Nate Bagley is a child and family counselor at Bridge City Counseling (bridgecitycounseling.com), where he serves as clinical director. He’s also a part-time stay-at-home dad to a kindergartner and toddler.