Confession: Sometimes I’m a lousy parent. Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I lose my temper. Sometimes I yell. And my kid yells too. He loses his temper over stuff that is really small. Unlike my stuff which is obviously real and significant. There’s nothing like hearing yourself in your kid’s meltdown.
I’ve read plenty of parenting books on keeping calm and carrying on. And I have resolved, many times, to keep my calm. And it works for a while and then inevitably 25 things go wrong one morning — we’re late and the younger one has to go potty and the older one forgot his retainer and everyone is arguing with me and I lose my temper. Again.
I’ve spent a lot of time working with my kid on how to manage his anger. Take a deep breath. Walk away (time out/time in/whatever). Count to ten. I’ve seen some improvement but inevitably some set of events causes him to lose it. Again.
Am I teaching him to manage his emotions or am I teaching him to minimize them? I mean, to be fair, sometimes we’re talking about a piece of banana bread. Why do I want to validate a temper tantrum from a ten year old over banana bread? It’s not like we’re talking about my very real concern of whether there’s enough coffee for tomorrow morning.
Recently I started doing this emotional clearing exercise that has allowed me to see my triggers very clearly. I’ve read about triggers before but most parenting books seem to presume the typical ones — you’re tired, you’re stressed, you’re hungry. Your kid is tired, over-scheduled or hungry. For whatever reason, I never took the time to ask what is triggering me? I have a few — one of them is feeling like I’m not being heard. Another is sneezing. Listen, I’m just being honest. I also have noise sensitivity and I really hate when people don’t put their shoes away. Ahem.
Once I started looking at what makes me fly off the handle, I was able to say, for example, I’m angry because you’re not hearing me. It doesn’t fix the anger. It just allows me to connect with what’s really going on emotionally. I don’t feel heard. I don’t feel like my feelings matter.
So I happened to tell my son what I was working on and asked whether it might work for him. I mentioned how much easier it is than trying to calm down and he replied, Yeah, because telling anyone to calm down DOES NOT WORK. Hmm. It seems so obvious but I had to agree that being told to calm down doesn’t really work for me either.
So we started talking about his triggers. And how we trigger each other. Something that seems fair and reasonable to him might sound to me like he doesn’t care. Something that sounds reasonable to me might sound hurtful to him. He’s sensitive about this. I’m sensitive about that. It was an honest, deep conversation. Sometimes, with ten year old boys, those can be hard to come by.
It struck me that it’s time for a different set of tools for the big kid in my life. It’s not that parenting a younger kid is easier but it can feel more straightforward. Go to bed. Don’t hit. Use your words. Little kids — at least mine — put it all out on the table. They don’t hold back. We’re now in a very different stage with my son. He doesn’t tell me everything. He sometimes feels misunderstood. I don’t remember age four but I do remember age ten. I remember feeling misunderstood. Hell, I’m pretty sure it happened to me yesterday.
I need to listen. But parenting isn’t just listening. How do you teach what you want them to learn without sounding like the teacher from Charlie Brown?
When all else fails, I try to remember my strengths. I can be honest and vulnerable. My son loves to hear stories about that girl in sixth grade who made fun of me and my “tragic” wardrobe. Or how I got in trouble for borrowing my mother’s earrings without asking. Or how I once had a complete meltdown over the press-on nails for my Halloween costume. It’s one of the few times he says, tell me more. On those rare occasions when he wants to keep talking, I feel hopeful. I’m sure there are plenty of parenting failures to come but right now I’m going to go ahead and celebrate feeling hopeful.