We all lose our shit with our kids sometimes.
This doesn’t make us bad parents, it’s just part of life with little ones. But when our explosions become habitual, when we’re losing it on a regular basis, then it’s a problem. It’s a problem because it increases the stress levels in our home, weakens our relationships with our children and to top it all off, it rarely solves any issue.
No matter how often they happen, parental meltdowns don’t feel good. While there’s a lot of advice out there about how to stop losing it with our children, there’s very little information about what to do after the inevitable freak-out has occurred. As it will.
How we respond to ourselves and our family members in the aftermath of a rough moment matters. There are choices we can make that will help repair and even strengthen our relationship with our children and make it less likely that we’ll lose it again soon. In my work as a clinical social worker and in writing my new book How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids, here’s what I’ve learned.
The first step is to calm down. To be clear, even if your meltdown has ended, you may not yet be calm. This step is not optional and don’t you dare try to engage your kids (whether to reconnect, redirect, or discipline them) until you have taken care of yourself. Otherwise, your mind and body will still be on a hair-trigger and the minute your child (who is likely also angry) talks back or doesn’t apologise or refuses to put on her shoes, you’re going to lose it again.
So, as I tell my kids all the time, you worry about yourself.
Cooling off isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially if we’re tired, hungry, overwhelmed, frustrated or just sick of it all. This is because most of us resort to some version of shame, blame, and generally thinking terrible thoughts about ourselves and/or our kids. This sort of thinking is neither necessary nor helpful. It’s just another way of perpetuating the negative headspace we’re already in, and you know what that means: another meltdown.
Fortunately, there are two powerful strategies that will help you chill out so you can reconnect with your kids (more on that in a bit) and get on with your day; hopefully without losing it again.
Have compassion for yourself
Self-compassion is about responding to ourselves with kindness, forgiveness, and understanding when the shit has hit the fan. Instead of berating yourself, try cutting yourself some slack. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a good friend. Here are a few specific things to remember:
Parenting is hard for everyone, and you are definitely not alone in your struggles.
You don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a good parent.
You can always, always start over.
Not only does this sort of compassionate self-talk feel a whole lot better than trashing yourself, but it will also move you out of the red zone and into a calmer, more patient headspace.
Get curious about your experience
Getting curious about what’s going on — for you and your kids — is another great way to get your train back on the right track. First, curiosity is an inherently kind approach, so you might just sneak some compassion in there. Think about the last time someone was genuinely interested (and not at all judgmental) about your experience. It felt good, right? So how about you treat yourself the same way? Not only will it help you calm down, but you might actually get some useful information about what set you off in the first place.
Here are some questions you might want to consider in the wake of an explosion:
What am I thinking? What am I feeling?
What’s happening in my body? Am I exhausted? In pain? In need of food, water, caffeine, or a bathroom break?
What’s triggering me? What else is going on in my life?
How can I calm myself down? What do I need right now?
What do my kids need? Why are they pushing my buttons? Are they tired, hungry, or getting sick? Are they dealing with any major transitions or developmental milestones?
Who can I text or call for help or a break?
Once you’re back on solid ground, you can apologise to your kids. Yep, you can. You can absolutely say you’re sorry without undermining your own authority or upending the power dynamic in the family. (And you’ll get bonus points for rebuilding your relationship with your children and modelling the sort of behaviour you’d like to see in them someday.)
Here’s how to do it:
1) Take responsibility for your behaviour. Own your role in the situation, whatever it was.
2) Say you’re sorry. Simple as that.
3) Make a plan for moving forward, even if just for the next few hours. Explain what you’re going to do differently, and how it will help.
4) Do not promise that you’ll never lose your temper again. You know that’s not true, and so do your kiddos, so don’t say it.
Here’s what this might look like: “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I felt frustrated when you didn’t put your shoes on. But yelling wasn’t a good choice and I apologise. Maybe we can try to help each other and be a team. You try hard to be a good listener and I’ll try hard not to shout again.”
From there, you can have another conversation (with maybe even a little limit setting, if necessary), but hold off on that until you’ve reconnected. This is such an important part of the process that we parenting people have a little rhyme for it: connection before redirection.
So, there you have it. The next time you lose it with your kids, start by calming yourself down. Compassion and curiosity can help. From there, you’ll be ready to reconnect and redirect.
Oh, and don’t worry if this seems hard at first. Chances are you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.