I don’t do well with tantrums. I know there isn’t a parent alive who enjoys it when their child ends up face-down on the grocery store floor because they can’t have CocoCrunch, but my daughters’ meltdowns leave me feeling angry and depleted as I desperately scour the kitchen for a handful of chocolate to shove in my face. My husband, in-laws, and friends all seem to have a way of staying calm through the freak-outs that I just don’t have, even though I’ve written two books on mindfulness and parenting. I’ve worked hard over the years to learn how to breathe my way through stressful moments, and I’ve gotten a bit better at keeping my own Mommy meltdowns at bay. But as they say, a good defense is the best offense, so my husband and I have spent a lot of time figuring out how to maintain peace in our home as often as possible. Here are a few practices that have been helpful with our girls (ages 7 and 5):
1. Self-Care Comes First. I’ve figured out what I need to do to keep myself mostly sane, and I do it as often as I can. Although I would love to blame my daughters, and my daughters alone, for their behavior, the reality is that my reactions to them undoubtedly set the stage for what comes next. When I am calm and flexible, able to distract and deflect rather than reacting from a place of rigidity or annoyance, my girls generally respond in kind. But I need sleep, time alone, long walks, and a decent amount of caffeine on a daily basis in order to do that with any regularity. When I don’t take care of myself, I’m like a big, red, glowing button just waiting to be pushed, but a long walk around the block with a stop at Dunkin Donuts has a way of making that button just a little smaller and a little less sensitive, which almost always has a pleasing ripple effect throughout my family.
2. Accept Reality. I’ve learned to acknowledge and accept my daughter’s quirks, needs, and triggers, and adjust my parenting style accordingly. When my big girl gets too hungry, she turns into a hell-beast, so making sure she gets enough food on a regular basis is a big part of my job as her mother. When my little one tells me her ear hurts, I know that I need to get her to urgent care ASAP unless I want to stay awake all night with a tormented child. Weeks of dinnertime tantrums led me to drop their after-school swim lessons, even after all the time and energy I spent trying to find a class that worked with our schedule. By paying attention to my daughters’ complaints and challenges and the outcome of my interventions (or lack thereof), I’ve learned to discern which issues can be dismissed with a kiss and a suggestion to play it off, and which ones require action, regardless of how inconvenient or annoying it may be.
3. Talk and Teach Before Tantrums. I teach my girls about their thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and behaviors. We talk about what helps us think clearly, feel calm, and make good choices, and what sets us off. They know that Mommy is grumpy when she’s hungry (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), that they’re more likely to throw tantrums when they’re tired, and that all of our tummies hurt when we’re anxious. These conversations take the blame out of difficult moments and help my daughters recognize and understand their experiences and the connections between what they feel and think and how they behave, especially when we’re all on the edge of a meltdown.
4. Make Sleep a Priority. Over the past seven years of parenthood, my husband and I have learned that when our daughters don’t get enough sleep, they turn into little demons (at best) and they get sick with croup, asthma, or ear infections (at worst). When I don’t get enough sleep, I’m slow and bleary, rigid and reactive, and prone to snapping at my kids over even the most minor irritation. Life isn’t perfect when we’re well rested, but it’s a whole lot better.
5. Breathe. A lot. Intentional breathing helps me get out of my swirling, anxious thoughts and back into the present moment, to what is actually happening right in front of me. It calms me down and helps me see clearly and make better decisions. My girls and I talk about why I breathe, and we read books about it (our current favorite is Charlotte and the Quiet Place by Deborah Sosin). We practice taking three magic breaths in tense moments, and we count our breaths on our fingers at bedtime.
All of this helps, to be sure. But meltdowns still happen, and sometimes the best we can do is call the day a wash and turn on an episode of Paw Patrol before heading off to bed. And that’s my final trick for keeping peace in our house: accepting that chaos is part of the deal. I’ve found that once I accept the madness, it’s not nearly as stressful as when I try to control it.
Carla Naumburg, PhD is a clinical social worker and the author of Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.
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