You’ve all been there; your child is in floods of tears because the carrots on his plate are too juicy. Or your daughter is completely delirious and in a rage because you said goodnight to her brother first. Or with heavy eyes you’re woken up at 3am by an inconsolable child and it takes 30 minutes of effort on your part to establish that it was because the small plastic dinosaur with the nobbly tail did not successfully get picked up from the dinner table and taken to his room.
At times such as these, it’s hard to know what your role as a parent is and in the heat of those tantrums and meltdowns a parent needs to successfully do a number of things.
Often my first point of call, in my head at least, is “SHUT IT DOWN!” Quick, do what you can to stop this piercing noise!”
Stopping the piercing noise is a good outcome, but as well as deescalating the situation, there are often certain lessons to try and get across in these heated moments too. Such as why it’s important to share, how eating carrots and vegetables is really good for you, or just that sometimes in life, quite often in fact, things don’t go the way you’d like them to… So DEAL WITH IT!
I often find myself trying to share these pearls of wisdom to my children when they’re upset, although as my wife points out, the intricacies of how to overcome disappointment or deal with rejection are sometimes lost on a 2 year old.
You also have to not just say the right things and in a way that they understand, but say them in the right way too. A soft and soothing tone of voice, providing choices so the child can feel they have agency in the outcome (if you don’t want to eat carrots today you can have something else that’s healthy. Would you like an apple or a banana?). There are some occasions, mostly where danger is involved or when nothing else seems to be working where you will feel the need to be firm and say ‘NO!’ with enjoyable volume (your expectation will be that this is sure to work. It rarely does.)
Read any book or blog on dealing with tantrums and it will talk about showing empathy (it’s ok, I understand that this is frustrating or upsetting). It will talk about the art of distraction (there there, oh look, Batman’s trapped in this shoe, shall we rescue him?). It will talk about how sometimes your child’s behaviour will be an attention seeking ploy and that if you respond to it, the child has been victorious and will repeat this forever more because you bought it hook line and sinker; the advice being to not give the behaviour the attention and ignore them (this is an appealing tactic but in my experience rarely shuts the noise down).
Unless you’re a single parent, you also have to think about what your fellow parent would say/has said already/intends to say and make sure you’re not conflicting with each other or undermining each other. In many ways, parenting as a team is arguably one the hardest parts to parenting (one for another post!).
The other thing you have to do and probably the most important thing of all is remember that the little child who is pressing all your buttons and testing all of your acquired adult skills is, a little child and that you love them dearly. They are new to the world and confused by the world. It’s easy as a parent to think that the raging screaming little person on the floor by your feet is being ridiculous and that their behaviour is out of proportion with the event (Their breakfast bowl is not blue) but their world is a child’s world and their emotions are pure and unsuppressed.
In the course of a single day, a child will experience multiple doses of joy and fear and doubt and blissful friendship and then crushing heartbreak as their friends decide to exclude them. Luckily, children are still learning how to process all this and appear to be pretty resilient to these emotional struggles but you’ll still need to put yourself into their shoes and seek to understand their world no matter what age they are.
A new born who is learning how to interact with the world from pure expression and tone needs you to show love, smile and be gentle.
A toddler who without more complex language skills is trying to find other ways of communicating or is getting what they want by testing boundaries, needs those boundaries to be made clear as well as all the love, fun and care as well.
A school age child like my eldest, has a comprehensive vocabulary so it’s easy to treat them as an adult but they still don’t understand all the words they know, and still really struggle with emotions and understanding relationships with friends. (If you want to be reminded of just what an emotional roller coaster being at school is check out the Channel 4 documentary the-secret-life-of-4-5-and-6-year-olds).
So it’s not easy this parenting lark. It’s absolutely wonderful and I can quite confidently say it is the best thing that has ever happened in my life. My two children give me so much fun and joy and love but also challenge too, and in the spirit of continuing to grow and learn ourselves, this is also to be welcomed. I love to teach my children about anything and everything, to show enthusiasm to learn, to show love to others, to play and create, to have confidence in themselves and to demonstrate all of these attributes in my own behaviour.
Like me, you’ll try to put everything you’ve ever learned in your life into these beautiful little people and give them the skills, the values and the attitude to navigate and thrive in their lives. It’s fine to aspire to being the best parent you can be to your children (in fact you should aspire to this), but that doesn’t mean to say you’ll get it right all the time. On the contrary, you’ll probably get it wrong most of the time and right only a fraction of the time. But that’s ok.
Being the best parent you can be doesn’t mean perfect. Perfect doesn’t exist. Being the best parent you can be is more of a messy endeavour of trial and error, self-reflection, refining communication (with child and your partner) and holding true to the values you want to be prominent in yours and your child’s life. Everything else is chaos which you’ll rarely be able to control.
And it is chaos. Particularly when parenting is only one of your jobs alongside the paid job which keeps a roof over your heads and food in the fridge, the job of being the best partner (if you have a significant other), the job of household maintenance and domestic duties, the job of investing in your own wellbeing be that reading, creating, exercise or staring blankly at the wall whilst you’re hiding in the bathroom from the kids for 5 minutes.
You’ll never be an expert, nobody is. But here are 6 strategies for how to successfully NOT become an expert at parenting:
1. Be patient. Because lord knows you’re going to need to be. There is nothing like a screaming child (particularly in public) to test your patience. This takes practice (you’ll get plenty, don’t worry) and it also improves with preparation. Try to pre plan what strategies you might deploy when dealing with a tantrum in the supermarket or at the school gates when everybody is judging you. The urgency of the moment is often overbearing but there is usually time for a few deep breaths before responding. This also provides a useful pause to decide what approach is right for the circumstances and to rid yourself of your own emotions such as “oh FFS…”.
2. Go easy on yourself. It’s hard; don’t beat yourself up if you sometimes have allowed yourself to let the busyness of life influence your behaviour towards your little ones. It is bound to happen when you’re tested so often. Tomorrow is another day and you’ll have learned from today. Hey, in all likelihood you’ll probably get 10 more chances today!
3. If you make a mistake, admit it. Just like you expect your child to say sorry to the other child who now has an imprint of a train on their forehead, you should also be demonstrating this behaviour to your child. If you did or said something you shouldn’t have or now regret, say sorry. Everyone makes mistakes and self-reflection is an important behaviour to model.
4. Have empathy. Children are on a permanent roller coaster of emotions throughout each day. Put yourself in their shoes, recognise the strength of emotion they feel and pity that they cannot understand the why. Remember that despite amazing you every day with their development, they still have nearly everything to learn, and for the most part, they will need to learn from you (and that includes how to show empathy for other people when they are upset)
5. Talk about it. You’re not alone. There are billions of parents and endless amounts of online help, books and resources to turn to. Just as helpful will be your local network of friends, family members, parental groups, NCT classes etc. Not all advice will be good advice (this included perhaps) and you will encounter parents who seem to have it all licked. They don’t. They’re lying. Rather, meet with other parents, share your experience, soak up their experience and advice and decide what resonates with you.
6. Keep trying. There are all sorts of ways you can support a child in distress but let’s imagine you’ve tried calm and soft, you’ve tried love, you’ve tried reading a book, you’ve tried making them laugh, you’ve tried soothing, you’ve tried distraction, you’ve tried ignoring if it’s attention seeking, you’ve tried empathy, you’ve tried low level bribing, (ice lolly, malted milk biscuit, enormous cuddly penguin from the zoo gift shop) you’ve tried reverse bribing (Santa won’t come if…), you’ve tried being firm, you’ve gone back to trying soothing… you’ve tried EVERYTHING!!
In masculine terms, think of it like a toolbox. Assess the situation, pick an approach (tool) to use and if it doesn’t work, try another, then repeat the process. Some of the ones listed above I tend to rattle through by process of elimination. Best to work with the softer tools first and try never to use the hammer (disclaimer: I don’t mean an actual hammer, this is a metaphor. Perhaps shouting might be a hammer; try not to do that)
Sorted? Happy with how you handled it? Child ok? Good. Now you can go to sleep that night knowing that the next day everything you previously thought you’d mastered will all be history and you’ll have to deal with some new type of behaviour by trying out everything you can think of. Again.