It’s happened to all of us. You’re with your kids, it’s been a long day, you’re frustrated, and something sets you off. Maybe you raise your voice or use a bad word or anything that might signal to your son or daughter that a grown-up temper tantrum is on the way. What do you do next? Do you say I’m sorry and move on or do you ignore it? Or do you just breathe deep and decide you will address it when you’re a bit more calm? Well, it depends on what kind of foundation you have set with your family about rule breaking.
One thing we learn from our kids is that tantrums are generally born out of frustration and the inability to express your needs. Kids get wound up from lack of sleep, a disruption in their schedule, low (or high) blood sugar and the entire day can go off the rails. When you’re in the middle of that storm it can be difficult to corral your child’s emotions, but that is just the time to do it. Studies show that traditional timeouts create a feeling of abandonment and detachment, moreover, they don’t address the problem at hand.
If you’re in a public space, remove your son or daughter but try to avoid scolding them for making a scene. Anger, sadness, and frustration are all normal feelings and should be treated matter-of-factly when possible. Allow space for you and your child to connect directly which in turn will help clear a path back for them. Sit down with your son or daughter and try holding them in a bear hug, or it that is overwhelming try gently stroking their hair while they calm down. Connection to another person will ground them and immediately teaches them about the power of empathy. Try using phrases like “I know this is hard” or “It’s been a tough day, hasn’t it”. A two or three-year-old may not be able to understand why they went from being happy to unhappy so quickly, but you can help them to understand that it will not be forever. By making the moment situational instead of personal, you have given them the chance to correct their behavior without penalizing them.
This also lays the groundwork of treating your family like teammates, responsible to one another and the group as a whole (even when sometimes it feels like a game of Parents v. Kids). But the boundaries you set can easily intersect with a team mentality. When it comes to chores or housework, a team effort is important! Everyone doing their part, working together and supporting one another. Or if you have fighting siblings, allow them to take the space that they need to cool off or process their emotions, but also reinforce that they are teammates.
So what does this mean for when parents mess up? Pretty much the same thing it means for the kids. In the opening example, I asked how to respond or what to say when you yourself have broken the rules. The answer isn’t set in stone, and it will obviously be different for you than it is for kids learning how to process new feelings for the first time. But you will have created a space of empathy and communication to say “I’m feeling frustrated because…” and then explain to your kids why you yelled or got angry or whatever happened. It will remove the immediate tension in the room, give them an example of how adults process complex emotions not so different from those of children and reinforce your lessons on empathy. Plus, it might make you feel better too!
There are lots of ways we set boundaries for our kids. Maybe you keep a swear jar in your house, which means you should probably contribute to it when the kids catch you throwing out an expletive. It’s also important not to let kids have free reign so that they may put themselves in danger. All of the everyday lessons are important in creating a safe and happy home life. While practicing empathy and communication will help them build a support system to take out into the world and bring back home when you may need it too.