In this article, I’m sharing with you how I managed a difficult moment that I had with my kids one evening, when there was nobody else to offer adult support. Starting from this incident, I’m describing some classic strategies that parents use to solve conflicts with kids, as well as some newer and constructive ones.
That time when I gave myself time-out
I connect with the kids
It happened one evening, shortly before bedtime, when I was home alone with my kids. I had just played with them with kinetic sand and I had done special time with my oldest son, Theodor, who is almost 6 years old. We had played chess, his new passion. We then went to shower and, just like in so many other past instances, the frail balance vanished in a split second.
Things spin out of control
As Theodor and Filip started to play with a minion toy, their sister, Ana, began to scream from the top of her lungs out of fear of the toy. My sons found that amuzing, so they continued to threaten Ana with the toy, while running naked around the house, screaming. It was way beyond their bedtime, I was sitting on the bathroom cold floor with Ana crying in my arms. I turned blank and stared at an invisible spot on the wall.
What was happening was familiar to me because it occured frequently in our home. Generally, this state of agitation and lack of control of the kids was not something extremely difficult or impossible to handle (although the work of handling always cost me a high amount of vital energy from my part).
I can’t offer emotionally to others what I don’t have for myself
Still there, on the bathroom floor, I had a strong feeling of chaos. And despite my usual urge to go into “fight or flight” mode, I froze. I used the minute leftover of strength to think rationally and managed to reflect on what I was feeling in that moment. Mental exhaustion and helplessness. That was my “aha” little moment, when I recognized these feelings that I’d lived around my kids times and times again.
Even if I don’t always understand why or how such feelings reach me, I know for a fact that in such moments of duress I cannot be connected with my children. Because I am not even connected with myself. I am lost. If I don’t realize soon enough that I feel, yet again, lost, this feeling can very well lead me to overreacting and hurting myself and those close to me.
I manage to make a salutary decision
Suddenly, I felt again the cold tiles, I heard Ana who was still crying hard in my arms, I revisited her scared face, made my instant decision and stood up: I am giving myself a time-out. Knowing that soon I was going to be by myself, able to regroup myself, gave me enough energy to gather the boys and in 15 minutes we were all lying in bed.
By that time, the boys were still in their frantic state, but Ana had calmed down. I was happy to realize that I had spent my last resources of self-control, so Ana could exit her state of fear and desperation. I stood up, I asked them to stay in the room and told them that I was going to leave for a few minutes to calm down and I would come back to them.
I offer myself time-out
I exited the house, got in the car and started crying in hurt and desperation with my head on the wheel. After about a minute, I stopped short and worried. I imagined my kids inside the house, crying, scared and feeling abandoned.
I had the impulse of going back in the house to relieve their stress, but I remembered that I’d done that before. And every time I had failed to be a valuable support for them simply because my emotional need hadn’t been met. I had gone back to my kids when I wasn’t ready to be with them, out of an altruistic feeling. And then and there I decided that the most altruistic, loving thing that I could do for them was to stay in the car for long enough to regain inner balance.
For the first time since I first offered myself a time-out, I stayed for as long as I needed it. After 10 minutes, I went back in the house feeling balanced, but worried. I listened. It was quiet. I went up to the kids’ room and found them snuggled into each other, reading some books.
They welcomed me cheerfully and I hugged them. I told them that I’d needed a few moments alone because I was afraid I might have done nastily if I hadn’t. Theodor shouted in realization “Ahaaa, mommy, you wanted to protect!” We laid in bed and we soon fell asleep holding each other tightly.
Kids’ off-track behavior is a cry for help
A small child who doesn’t speak yet might take your hand and lead you to the fridge to show you that he’s hungry. Similarly, a child who speaks the language, but not (yet) the language of emotions, will cry for unimportant (to you) reasons. He’ll show you how he’s feeling by throwing things in anger or spite, screaming, kicking, whining. He’ll show you that he’s feeling lost and un-connected to himself and to his relevant others.
Whenever you are unable to physically or emotionally help your child, he will resume (or continue) his off-track behavior. Well, for us it’s off-track, but for him, it’s his best shot at communicating with and reaching out for us.
And he’ll continue his behavior until he will feel listened to, accepted, understood or, in extreme cases when adults around him are not receptive to his messages, he’ll stop expressing himself altogether.
Parenting strategies for difficult moments with the kids
After attention and care, quality time and staylistening to our kids, the unexpected (and inevitable) usually occurs: they go off-track. Across times, parents have figured out various strategies of handling kids in tense moments. Below, I’m listing the main strategies that I’ve heard about or used in difficult moments. I ordered these strategies according to how de-/con-structive and (in)efficient they seem to be (through experience, but also scientific research).
Efficient and constructive strategies for crisis parenting
Parenting strategies that help us reconnect, solve issues, heal past or present wounds with our kids seem to be just a few and quite simple. They are also counterintuitive, because most of us have been raised with different strategies:
- We spend quality time together. What Hand in Hand parenting organization calls “special time” and other variations of that notion.
- We play together. Through play, we reconnect, repair tense situations that we adults have handled poorly, we heal traumas, eliminate negative emotions, as Larry Cohen describes in his book “Playful Parenting”.
- We set limits. We observe the child and become convinced that something deeper than meets the eye is happening with him. We realize that it’s not just about his wish to eat a cookie before lunch. Or that he wants to ride in the car without a seatbelt on for 3.5 meters. Or that he chooses to wear winter gloves when it’s 40 degrees Celsius outside. After repeated requests of this kind, it say “no” and then listen carefully and calmly to what our little one needs to show.
Inefficient and damaging strategies for crisis parenting
Many past generations of parents, limited by their historical logistics, mentality and emotional capabilities, have developed over time various strategies that are damaging to the parent-child relationship, as well as to the child’s relationship with the surrounding world. I’m listing below the strategies that I have heard about or that have been used upon me in my childhood, in a gradual order of “potential damage”.
- We rationalize, or, simply put, we lecture. Studies have demonstrated that when a child is living intense emotions, his brain is no longer functioning properly, he becomes rigid in thinking and enters a “freeze, fight or flight” mode. That is why we may observe that our child seems to not hear us when we say “no hurting”, “no throwing”, or “the rule is to wash our teeth before going to bed”. It seems that he’s not hearing because he really isn’t hearing. Before talking with a child, a more efficient and healthy approach may be to re-establish a connection with him.
- Time-out for the parent. Sometimes when more efficient and gentle strategies have failed to work, you feel that the glass is empty (or even below bottom level – yes, if you’re a parent reading this, you know that’s possible 🙂 ) and that you’re going to blow-up. That’s when you use all the energy that’s left in you to ensure safety for the kids and then you go to another room to retrieve your inner balance. From my experience, time-out for myself is difficult to do (especially since I worry constantly about the kids if they’re left alone) and imperfect (it doesn’t really untangle or heal what brought us to that point). But I still believe it is a preferred strategy compared to the ones that follow.
- Time-out for the child. This is a strategy that many of us, parents from today, have experienced throughout our childhoods. We’ve maybe lived it as “go to your room and think what you did wrong”. If for certain reasons (logistical or emotional limitations), you are unable to give yourself time-out, you send the child away from your proximity when he’s showing off-track behavior. Ideally, the time-out is offered as gently and calmly as possible, without adding unnecessary harm to the child. When you give your child time-out because he’s restimulating you in ways that hurt you deeply or he’s hurting himself and others, the child receives the subliminal message that “when you misbehave, mommy stops loving you”. This is just a shape of conditional love. Plus, the classical time-out enhances the child’s feeling of being abandoned.
- We yell. Most of us, I am sure, we try at least a few previous strategies until we can’t take it anymore. We find ourselves screaming out of control at the very beings that we cherish most in our lives. This strategy, as far as I can see, damages the parent-child relationship, while it doesn’t really solve the problem at hand. The unmet needs that the child was expressing remain unadressed and even become worsened by the child’s fear caused by the screaming. The parent has, for a few moments, the impression that she’s unloaded some tension, but sometimes she feels like screaming even more, until finally she feels guilty and defeated by what she just did.
- We became verbally aggressive. Parents use this strategy and the next one when they are an emotional, physical and/or mental wreck. That state can be either temporary or chronical. When they employ this strategy, parents are out of resources, ideas, strategies, or self-control. If they don’t use physical aggression, these parents prove a last, desperate attempt to control their reactions, which, according to me, is something that deserves admiration. I believe that parents who have used or are recurrently using this strategy deserve compassion and support.
- We become physically aggressive. I believe that many of us agree that this strategy is the most damaging for the ones involved, for the family, general atmosphere, and for the future. Like in all else, there is a large array in gravity of physical aggression of the parent upon the child. Starting from snatching our kid’s sleeve, to shoving him out of our way or an occasional slap on the kid’s bottom or recurrent and hard hitting, this strategy is a parent’s horrified cry for help. Indeed, I believe that this is a cry for help even from parents who proudly state that “spanking is necessary” or that “My parents spanked me a lot and look how well I turned out!”. I can’t help but think about Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand in Hand parenting organization, who states that sometimes kids who have harmed somebody, look like they have no regrets at all. I believe this mechanism of self-protection (for some of us, it’s unbearable to even look beyond the surface of what physical violence has done to us) works with adults as well, when they justify their physical aggression with the child. These parents, I believe, need and deserve the most extensive support.
Kids offer us many occasions to repair the damage
Regardless how much we, the parents, or the child believe that we’ve produced harm, it’s important to do repair work.
I find that a strong and efficient repair requires more than apologies. When I feel that I have treated my kids in a harmful way, I try to repair our relationship by taking responsibility for my mistake (“you didn’t do anything wrong, I was upset about something else and I mistakenly directed it to you”). I stress the fact that he/she for me is a wonderful child. I encourage him to continue expressing his feelings (“you are brave when you show me how you’re feeling inside and I hope you’ll continue to do that”). I do special time.
When I’m working on repairing, I don’t do all at once and, depending on the context, I try to create a safe space for my kid to say how he felt and what he feels in the moment of the discussion.
Good enough is perfect
Maybe I’m not the only one who’s grown up with an excessive focus on achieving perfection. Since I’ve met my husband 13 years ago and more recently since I’ve had kids, I’ve been slowly learning that my family is populated by human beings who are complex, diverse, intense, with needs and ways to express them different from my own.
Instead of painstakingly focusing on achieving my goals, I have learned to settle for the best that I can do. And try to do better next time. I focus more on the things that I can have a real impact on and less on what I think that others should be doing. Paradoxically, this state of ‘come-as-it-may” has also diminished my feeling of guilt for my mistakes.
Kids benefit from the parents’ authenticity
I don’t know how your kids are, but mine can surely tell when I’m angry or sad. But if I don’t let them know why I’m angry or sad, they don’t know. And they very well may assume that my negative feelings are related to them. I could feel scared by something that I heard on the news, upset that I’ve had a row with my husband, or angry because I’m starving and the fridge is empty.
My kids are having a hard time handling my moments of upset when I tell them the reasons for my state. Sometimes, they give me enough space to retrieve my inner balance, but most often than not, they don’t have the resources to allow me to recover. Even so, I noticed that they are much more relaxed when they are convinced that they are not the ones causing my uneasy feelings.
And when I’m upset over something that one of my kids did, it helps both of us I talk about his behavior that upset me, and not refer to his entire being. For example, “I’m upset that you pinched your sister”, instead of “I’m angry with you, you are so mean!”.
A few years ago, I read an article about a study made with 5 year-old kids. The kids were asked what they prefer when their parents are fighting: should parents fight away from their (the kids’) knowledge, or in front of them. The researchers were surprised to learn that most of the kids (I don’t recall how many) said that they prefer for parents to be transparent about their disagreements. When the parents avoid having disagreements in front of the kids, the kids still know that their parents had a disagreement, but they just don’t know the reasons for it.
The intention counts
We, parents, are first and foremost human beings. Subject to mistakes through which we grow. Sometimes we use strategies based on connection, some other times we turn to havoc and duress. At all times, however, the intention that we have during the tense situation and later throughout repair, may very well impact the parent-child relationship decisively.
For example, sometimes, the best thing that you feel you can do as a parent is to remove yourself from the proximity of the child. Depending on your intention when you do that, this approach looks quite different.
If you leave from the side of the child because you want to punish him and show him “how (bad) it (abandonment) feels”, then this will impact the child in a damaging way.
If, however, you remove yourself in order to protect the child and the relationship, your behavior will look different and repair will probably go smoother.
We hurt our dear ones often. But if our intention was a positive one and we manage to communicate that, then I’m guessing that the pain of the other is smaller and the healing process quicker.
Other sources that may be interesting for you:
Larry Cohen writes in his book “Playful Parenting” about the role of play in building or restoring connection with a child.
This is a wonderful article about what happens with a child’s brain when he feels hurt either physically or emotionally.
A short video by Patty Wipfler, from Hand in Hand Parenting by Connection, about the child’s brain and how to help a child with off-track behavior to regain his clear thinking.
An article about the ancestral reflexes of human beings to “freeze, fight or flight”.