Kids can bring out the best in us—and they can bring out the worst. Namely, our kids are experts at pushing our buttons.
It’s all-too easy to go from zero to sixty when your child is screaming that NO, they won’t get in their car seat, and NO, they won’t stop running around in zig-zags in the preschool parking lot, and YES, they hate you and your guts and like daddy (or mommy) SOOOOO much better.
In those moments, it’s hard not to lose your cool. Which, of course, is putting it mildly. It’s actually really hard not to flip out and transform into the Incredible Hulk, huffing and puffing, and screaming your brains out.
But these freak-outs don’t have to be regular, inevitable occurrences. We can learn to be calm—at least some of the time.
Clinical social worker Carla Naumburg, Ph.D, has written an insightful, honest, non-judgmental, and highly relatable book aptly called How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Calmer, Happier Parent.
Below are several powerful tips from the book, which can help us reduce our rage and parent from a more relaxed, thoughtful place.
Know Your Triggers
According to Naumburg, triggers can be both universal and unique. For example, exhaustion can pave the path to rage for all of us, while crowds, loud noises, and fluorescent lighting trigger some of us (typically highly sensitive people).
It’s important to reflect on precisely what triggers you so you can intervene. Naumburg notes that the following triggers are common for parents she knows and works with: multitasking when you’re with your kids; anxiety, such as worry thoughts, feeling restless and irritable, and difficulty focusing; your phone, such as social media, notifications, and being constantly connected; and major life changes, such as death, divorce, and moving.
The key with triggers, Naumburg writes, isn’t necessarily to eliminate them. Rather, she says, it’s to become aware of them, to acknowledge what’s happening, and to take action.
Intervene in Time
It’s best, of course, to intervene before you’re seething with rage. Naumburg suggests by starting to notice your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. For example, maybe you’re ruminating about a work deadline or a fight with your spouse. Maybe you’re feeling stressed out. Maybe your shoulders are slowly rising to your ears, and your muscles feel stiff.
Once you notice what’s going on inside your mind and body, you can intervene. Maybe you jot down the steps you can take to meet your deadline. Maybe you drop your shoulders, and do a few stretches. Maybe you simply accept that you’re having a difficult day, and tell yourself that it’s OK.
And if you find yourself getting really worked up, Naumburg suggests noticing your breath. You might “slow down your breath or count your inhales and exhales or take three deep breaths.”
It’s also important to pause and take a break. This is “about activating your parasympathetic nervous system (which calms down your buttons) and giving yourself a little time and space to calm those buttons down.” This can include walking to the other side of the room, taking a deep breath, or putting “your hands flat on the kitchen counter and trac[ing] your fingers.”
The last part is to do, as Naumburg writes, “literally anything else.” That is, do something that works in calming you down—really works. For example, drinking wine and reaching for your phone will only prolong the trigger phase. What might be more effective is to put on some calming music or repeat a mantra or prayer.
In addition, it can help to be honest with your children about how you’re feeling, which also teaches them to cope with their emotions. For example, Naumburg has told her kids: “Girls, I’m feeling pretty stressed…, and I can tell that I’m about to snap at you. I don’t want to do that, so I’m going to put my hands on the counter and take five deep breaths. You can breathe quietly with me, or you can give me some space, but if you ask me for something or otherwise talk to me, I will probably bite your head off.” (As Naumburg says, you might need to specify that the latter is not literal.)
BuRPs are “Button Reducing Practices.” According to Naumburg, these practices are free, simple, and evidence based, and they’ll reduce the size and sensitivity of our buttons. These practices include: sleep, single-tasking, self-compassion, support, simplifying, and slowing down.
You might want to start with practices that directly address your triggers. For example, if your trigger is a cluttered house, you focus on decluttering and creating some simple systems. If you’re constantly exhausted, you decide to sleep more and stretch your body.
Naumburg notes that “it’s not developmentally appropriate to expect children to behave well all the time. This is especially true if they’re triggered or struggling with developmental, emotional, physical, or intellectual challenges or if it’s Tuesday or their moon is in Mercury. Their prefrontal cortex, the part of their brain that is responsible for keeping them in line, literally doesn’t exist yet. It’s like asking them to build a house without any wood or tools.”
Of course, it’s still critical to teach kids appropriate behavior and different life skills, and to set healthy boundaries.
But the reality is that we can’t control their behavior. Thankfully, however, we can control our own. So keep practicing. And during the moments you do snap, apologize, and forgive yourself. Parenting is hard. And you’re human. (And so are your kids.)
If you find that you’re flying off the handle frequently, and you feel out of control, remember that you can always schedule several sessions with a therapist.