My friends consider me a calm person. When other drivers but me off without signaling, I just sigh and keep going. When store clerks are surly, I ignore them. So why was I standing at the top of the stairs the other day, waving a Lego block and screaming that if I found one more beneath my bare feet, I’d throw all of them out?
My kids, that’s why. Gus, 6, and Teddy, 2, have an uncanny ability to pull me into tantrum territory. It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing. But like many parents, I can only take so much before I go into meltdown.
Experts say that parents are most vulnerable to eruptions when they’re already feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or angry. Of course, yelling, stomping your feet, or throwing stuff rarely helps, as satisfying as they may feel. Worse, kids don’t learn healthy ways to handle frustration. Fortunately, there are proven ways to short-circuit your temper and still lay down the law, when confronted with the following problems:
You’re shopping for groceries and your 6-year-old notices a toy he has to have. You say, no, and the pitiful pleas begin. Why we get so mad: “That unreasonable, grating, endless tone of voice feels like Chinese water torture,” says Atlanta psychologist Stephen W. Garber. Ph.D., author of Good Behavior. The rule to stay cool: Immediately say, “You’re whining, and I don’t respond to whining. I won’t change my mind.” Then totally ignore your child. “The whining may get worse for awhile, but eventually it will break, like a fever,” says Garber. If the problem persists: Do a time-out. Leave the store with your little whiner and return to your car. Seat him in the back and tell him to contemplate his tone of voice. Then sit down in the front and take a breather. When both of you are back in control, resume shopping without discussing the incident.
You’re on the phone with a friend when your 9-year-old tugs on your sleeve: “Hey, Mom, we read a really cool book in school today, and guess what happened at soccer, and…” Why we get so mad: “We feel that an older child should know better,” says James Windell, a Michigan-based psychotherapist. “And we suspect he’s trying to control us.” The rule to stay cool: Put your friend on hold or tell her you’ll call back. Then calmly spell out the ground rules: “Unless it’s an emergency, you are not to interrupt while I’m on the telephone. This is my time to spend with my friend; I will give you my full attention once the call is done.” Then suggest an activity he can do in another room or outside. If the problem persists: Make your calls someplace where you can shut the door — or when the kids are away or asleep.
3 Ignoring requests
Every day this week you’ve asked your 10-year-old to clean up his room. Now, it’s Saturday afternoon, he’s playing video games, and his room remains in chaos. Why we get so mad: When kids don’t listen. it feels like they’re either being lazy or trying to walk all over us. The rule to stay cool: Stop nagging and set a deadline, says Dee Shepherd-Look, Ph.D., a child psychologist in private practice in Northridge, CA. “Tell your child exactly when the chore needs to be completed — and what will happen if it doesn’t get done.” Avoid making threats you won’t keep (“If you don’t clear your CDs off the living room floor. I’ll throw them out!”) or you’ll undermine your authority. If the problem persists: Enforce the penalty without further discussion. “Parents frequently back down because they don’t want their child to get upset or angry.” says Shepherd-Look. “But it’s okay for children to have negative feelings as a consequence of their actions.”
4 Sibling fights
You’re driving your kids home from school, and the two of them start punching each other in the backseat. “Cut it out! ” you command, but they just keep going. Why we get so mad: “We feel helpless — and it grates on the nerves,” says Garber. The rule to stay cool: Don’t take sides. Glaring at your kids through the rearview mirror and demanding to know “Who started it?” will only prolong things. Tell them if they don’t stop taking swipes at each other, you’ll revoke a privilege they both enjoy (like watching videos). “When kids suffer the same punishment, you reinforce the message that neither will profit by fighting — and give them equal incentive to resolve their argument,” says Garber. If the problem persists: Pull the car over if possible, or wait until you get to the next highway exit. Then say, “This car is not moving until you guys are quiet enough for me to drive safely.” When the combat dies down, get back on the road without comment. Explains Garber, “This sends a clear message that, you won’t tolerate hitting — and that you won’t become emotionally involved in your kids’ arguments.”
Your 13-year-old tells you she’s going to the library after school, so you plan a quick trip to the mall — and spot her sitting with a boy at the food court. Why we get so mad: “It’s like a slap in the face for most parents when they catch their child in a lie,” says Constance L. Katz, Ph.D., director of training in the Child-Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Program at the William Alanson White Institute in New York City. The rule to stay cool: Don’t drag your child out of the mall, which will only alienate her. Besides, as Katz notes, “you won’t find out why she lied.” Instead, approach her, express your distress without making a scene, and tell her you’ll discuss the matter at home. Later, give a warning or reasonable punishment, depending on the situation, and try to address the reason she felt she had to lie so you can prevent repeat performances. For instance, if your daughter acted deviously because she thought you wouldn’t approve of her having a boyfriend — and you wouldn’t — compromise by letting her spend time with him at your house, or encourage group dates. If the problem persists: Get help (from your spouse or a professional) in teasing out the underlying issue. “Chronic lying is a danger signal,” says Katz. “The child may have low self-esteem or intense feelings of anger about something.”
6 Breaking things
Your 7-year-old and her friend are having a pillow fight in the family room. You remind her once again to be careful of your pottery collection. Then you hear the crash. Why we get so mad: “The parent thinks, `She ignored my warnings,’ or `She doesn’t respect me or my stuff,'” says Mark L. Goldstein, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and a clinical psychologist in private practice. The rule to stay cool: Don’t approach your child for at least ten minutes — you’ll need the time to fight the urge to accuse her of being “stupid” or holler, “How could you do this to me?” Once you’re composed, take your child aside and clearly express how upset you are about her carelessness. Then impose a punishment that fits the crime (dock her allowance to help pay off the vase, for instance). If the problem persists: Change your approach. “Children of any age can’t be expected to be as skilled as adults are in avoiding accidents,” notes Goldstein. Place precious objects in places where they won’t fall victim to rough-and-tumble play.
7 Foul language
Your 11-year-old gets so furious when you won’t let him go to his friend’s house to play that he calls you an offensive name. Why we get so mad: Cursing isn’t just hurtful — it’s in-your-face disrespect, says Shepherd-Look. “We also worry that if our child swears at others in public, he’ll be labeled `bad,’ or people will think he’s been poorly raised.” The rule to stay cool: Let your child know right away that although he is entitled to express his dissatisfaction and anger, you will not tolerate that kind of language. Tell him that if you hear it again, you’ll send him to his room to reflect on his choice of words. If the problem persists: Turn up the heat. Push his bedtime ahead by 15 minutes for each offense; with a teenager, restrict telephone use.
8 Missing curfew
You told your teenage daughter she could go out with her friends as long as she was home by 9:00 PM. It’s 10:00, she isn’t home, and she hasn’t called. Why we get so mad: “It’s a challenge to our authority,” says Goldstein. “But it’s also a source of great anxiety when you don’t know where your child is.” The rule to stay cool: Plan ahead. “Instead of getting worked up as you wait, spend the time thinking up a punishment that will give future curfews more impact,” he advises. Then, when your child walks through the door, say, as calmly as you can, “I am very disappointed and upset that you ignored your curfew. It’s important for me to be able to trust you when you go out. To help you learn that lesson, next week’s curfew is five minutes earlier for each minute you were late tonight.” If your child sees that you’re extremely upset but still in control, says Goldstein, “she’s more likely to admit that she overstepped her boundaries and to learn from her punishment” If the problem persists: Ground your child. “Hold firm,” urges Goldstein. “Your child may hate you for awhile, but she’ll get over it and pay more attention to curfew in the future.”
The Right Ways to Get Mad
It’s not necessarily bad to explode, especially when children have done something that’s dangerous to themselves or others, or unlawful, says James Windell, author of Children Who Say No When You Want Them to Say Yes. “When outbursts are infrequent, they can really drive a point home.” For the most effective results:
* Keep wording brief and to the point.
* Never assassinate your child’s character with statements like “You’re such a brat!” or “How could you be so stupid?” Point out the misbehavior and your feelings. (“You’re not obeying the rules, and that makes me really angry.”)
* Apologize if you cross the line. Tell your child, “I’m sorry I was so hard on you. What you did was wrong. But you didn’t deserve those hurtful words.” Don’t worry that you’ll lose your child’s respect — you’ll help her see that you respect her and that everyone makes mistakes.
* Seek professional help if you can’t stop yelling, name-calling, or ridiculing. Studies show such behaviors can harm kids’ self-esteem and lead to anxiety, depression, or rebellion.