It was a chilly mid-September Saturday in Killington, Vermont. My husband, Brian, was down the street competing in the Spartan Beast Race, a twelve-plus mile obstacle race. My three year old daughter had been conducting a nuclear tantrum on and off for the past hour. We were stuck on the top of a steep set of stairs with her baby brother, and I was about to say something I would instantly regret.
We had not properly prepared for the bone-chilling wind that weekend, and my daughter was a very unhappy cheerleader earlier that day as we waited in the spectator area to watch her dad cross the starting line. After cheering Brian through, we made our way back to the hotel with the thought that we would stay snug in our room until it was time to see Brian at the midway point.
Unfortunately, at the mere mention of returning to the race, my preschooler immediately went into a code red tantrum.
I tried all the usual tricks - snuggling, reasoning, incentives (ie, bribing), consequences, and guilt (“Daddy is waiting for us to cheer him on!”) I tried all these and more, but nothing worked.
Finally, I snapped. I grabbed my daughter and her, by this time, crying baby brother, two armfuls of stuff (diaper bag, snack bag, my daughter’s shoes and jacket, and the two kids themselves) and started walking out to the car where the stroller was packed.
The hotel was built on a hill and there was a steep set of stairs leading to the parking lot. I told my daughter to walk, but, naturally, she wasn’t having it. My son could not navigate the stairs alone, so in an attempt to free up some arm space, I threw the diaper and snack bags down the hill. My daughter innocently asked, “Mommy, why are you throwing them down the hill?”
To which I growled, “You’re lucky I’m not throwing you down the hill!”
And then immediately felt guilty.
To summarize the rest of the weekend, we missed seeing my husband at the halfway point, and also missed him coming over the finish line. I did manage to corral the kids in time to meet him in the parking lot, and got a lovely photo of him wearing his medal...with his eyes closed.
I was troubled and came home from that weekend trying to figure out what I could have done differently. How could I have prevented my verbal outburst? How much damage did my outburst do? And, of course, how could I have gotten my children to the race grounds in time to cheer on their father?
The Professionals Weigh In
Dr. Debra Nelson, Psy.D., also of Brownstone Psychological Associates, agreed. “It’s important for parents to know that every parent has moments of anger.”
Whenever Drs. Nelson and Bjarnason meet with parents for the first time, they make it a point to validate the frustrations parents experience. “Little kids are tough,” said Dr. Bjarnason. “They are not reasonable or rational.”
“On the other hand,” Dr. Nelson explained, “Every parent also hopes that she can teach her child and be a positive role model...When a parent responds in anger, she’s teaching her child that that’s a valid method for solving conflicts.”
“Recognize that children and parents have limitations,” Dr. Bjarnason said sharing strategies that could be used before an outburst occurs. “You were in a strange environment, the children may have been tired, you don’t have your usual resources available to you. Try addressing the behavior. Offer choices when there are some, but not when there are none. For example, you may have said to your daughter, ‘Do you want to put your coat on yourself, or do you want me to help you?’”
Another tip that Bjarnason offered was to encourage an ally relationship. A parent could enlist her child’s help by giving her a small job like carrying the snack bag.
Taking a reality check can also defuse a situation, according to Bjarnason. “As you were standing on the stairs, you could have thought to yourself, ‘My husband is a grown man. Would two to three minutes really matter? Stop. Take deep breaths. Count to ten and think to yourself, ‘What is the best outcome I can have right now?’”
If you lose it for a minute and then feel bad, take a breath and step back recommends Dr. Nelson. Try telling your child something like, “Mommy was really frustrated. I’m sorry I said that. I should have said that I was mad because...”
It’s also helpful to be concise with expectations for your child and avoid making blanket statements. For example, instead of saying, “You’re a lazy child,” say “I wish you’d help me pick up your blocks.” This is especially true when parenting teens, Bjarnason shared. “You don’t want to overgeneralize with them. Tell them ‘I need some help right now picking up the house,’ versus ‘All week long, neither one of you has done any of your chores.’”
Related to blanket statements are asking kids if they’d like to do something instead of just stating the expectation. When you see your child playing computer games instead of doing his homework, don’t say, “Do you want to start your homework now?” because the answer you’re likely to get is, “No.”
Humor and distraction can also be effective tools in the repertoire. Distraction can come in the form of “Let’s stop a minute and look at this flower,” according to Bjarnason. Humor can be making silly faces or doing goofy dance moves to break up the mood.
With older kids, a collaborative approach may work well. Sit down with your child and figure out something that will meet your and his goals. Bjarnason shared a story about a time her son asked for pretzels after school, but she wanted him to eat something healthier. She followed her own advice about being concise in stating expectations and told her son, “My goal is for you to eat vegetables. What is your goal?” It turned out that her son wanted just one or two pretzels and then was happy to comply with eating his vegetables at dinner.
Another common mistake many parents make is to expect their child to stop an activity immediately upon request. This never works. Instead, get in the habit of giving your child five or ten minutes notice (depending on their age) when a transition needs to take place. For instance, “Jack, dinner is in five minutes. In five minutes you need to put away the play dough and join us for dinner.”
There’s no clear-cut line delineating when anger has gone too far, however, Dr. Nelson counsels that if a parent is having frequent verbally aggressive outbursts, then they probably need to seek help. “Angry outbursts can be very scary for a child,” Nelson explained. “Kids need constant nurture and support. Frequent outbursts can invalidate a child’s feelings, and create anxiety because a child can’t predict when a parent will become angry, or even why that parent is becoming angry.”
“We might revert to behaviors we saw growing up,” Bjarnason explained. “With the best of intentions, in a clutch moment, that response may come out, and a parent may go there [become verbally aggressive] without meaning to. A parent may then feel guilty or horrible, which can lead her to feeling angry. If a parent is often angry or saying hurtful things, he should get some support and help dealing with childhood issues or whatever other problems may be contributing to this anger.”
She and Dr. Bjarnason were quick to point out that help can come from a variety of sources including members of the clergy, friends, and licensed psychologists like themselves.
“Parents need to remember to take good care of themselves.” Bjarnason concluded. “If a parent is frustrated and angry a lot, it means that they’re not taking care of themselves.”
Drs. Debra Nelson and Stacia Bjarnason are still in their temporary space at 6 Way Road, Suite 111, Middlefield, 860-349-7070, and anticipate moving into their new office in Durham this winter. You can learn more about their services at www.brownstonepsychological.com.