Of all the tantrums I have lived through — and with a highly sensitive preschooler, there have been plenty — the most shameful have been my own.
There is much I can excuse about my particular mode of parenting. The times I’ve tamped down the call to be present? I chalk that up to exhaustion. The not-so-wholesome meals I’ve served? Blame that on a busy schedule. The questions I’ve answered with I don’t know when I really mean I don’t care? Well, to that I say, I’m human.
But the irreconcilable sticking point I can never seem to circumvent is this: any moment I’ve reacted angrily to conflict with my children. Instead of letting go, I carry these memories with me, ashamed that they belong to me and my children in the first place.
No parent wants to admit to losing their cool with their kids, much less riding a wave of anger so wild we might as well call it what it is: a tantrum. It’s shameful. It’s embarrassing. And when we bury it so deep we refuse to talk about it, it’s also downright isolating.
Am I the only mother who has taken a seed of conflict and nurtured it until everyone in the house is red-faced and sobbing? Am I the one unconsolable mom who falls asleep ruminating over every misstep of the day? Am I alone in worrying that a sharp word here, or a harsh tone there will ruin my relationship with my kid forever?
Steffi Berkowitz, MDR, assured me I’m in the norm. Steffi is a mediator, Personal Growth Coach, and Conflict Communication Specialist in Psycho Neurolinguistics. I spoke with her by phone from her home in California where she is CEO of the Berkowitz Civility Group.
“As long as there are daily pressures in family life, parent-child conflict will be inevitable,” she told me. “Many of the dynamics in family conflicts are the byproducts of emotion, anger, frustration, or feelings that sense threat or betrayal. Whether those dynamics are between parents and toddlers, preschoolers, or older children, all will experience power struggles.”
Steffi encourages parents to reframe conflict within our families, viewing bumps in our parenting journeys as opportunities to grow, learn, and change.
“When we focus on ways to better connect with our children we can reset approaches that no longer work for us and work toward creating connection, not perfection,” she said.
Build a Peaceful Foundation
Conflicts happen, but how we deal with them can mean the difference between a moment of tension and a totally consumed afternoon. When your days are filled with tantrums and reactive behaviors, laying the groundwork for a smoother, more peaceful day can make all the difference.
Choose to soothe: When it comes to a child in the throes of anger, “Wanting to match the intensity of the situation with your tone is normal,” assured Steffi. “However, it is rarely constructive. Practice choosing a calm tone.”
Model for your child: “[Your children] do not know how to use their words when frustrated. It’s your job to help them learn by constructively using your own,” she said. Steffi suggests validating your child’s feelings (e.g. I see you’re upset, I understand you’re unhappy) and offering a solution (e.g. We can talk about it after we’re done shopping, let’s go.)
Collaborate: Build a receptive environment that encourages your child to open up to you — even when he or she knows you’re unhappy with them. Steffi recommends inviting your child to work with you to figure out words that fit their feelings. Then, create a script for future conflicts together. This tactic will help empower your child with words to describe his or her feelings when struggling with a big emotion next time around.
Press pause: If there’s ever a silver lining to a blow-up with our kids it’s that we can take each moment as an opportunity to learn — and do better next time. “When sensing the urge to react, consider clicking the pause button,” Steffi said. “Ask yourself whether or not a few triggered moments are worth landing in situations or conversations that diminish you in your eyes or in those of your children.”
After you’ve weathered a conflict with your child, take time and care to recover thoughtfully. Tend to yourself and your little one to ensure everyone involved is treated with kindness and leaves feeling grounded, safe, and loved.
Before sitting down with your child, Steffi recommends looking inward. Taking a beat to consider your reactions and behaviors in the heat of the moment can help you better navigate a hurdle the next time one arises.
According to Steffi, some helpful questions to consider include:
- What were my expectations?
- How did I contribute to the conflict?
- What was I reacting to when unburdening my frustration?
- What work-arounds might I create the next time I receive pushback?
- What alternatives can I think of to side-step yelling, belittling, sarcasm, or denigrating?
Open a Dialogue
Once you and your child have regained your balance, sit down and talk honestly with one another. Listen generously, Steffi recommends, and let your child have a turn at voicing their views and feelings.
To get started, she suggests:
- Jotting down a few thoughts in a script format.
- Asking your child questions about how they’re thinking and feeling.
- Watching your child’s reactions.
- Listening without judgement and encouraging your little one to talk and feel heard and understood.
Be Gentle With Yourself
There’s no use in ruminating over a troubling moment with our children. Skip beating yourself up and instead take what you can learn and move on, vowing to take your findings and do better in the future.
“Authentic parenting begins with the realization that we are not supposed to know everything there is to know about parenthood,” Steffi explained. “Parenthood is comprised of learning new skills to apply that may work one day and not the next. Learning new skills takes time and effort.”
At the end of the day, reacting to conflict doesn’t make you a bad mother. But it does give you an opportunity to grow.
“When conflict emerges between parents and children, it doesn’t mean that either are difficult,” Steffi explained. “It means that they are different and must learn ways to navigate and negotiate their differences in challenging environments.”
If you’re interested in further learning about emotional management within your family, Steffi Berkowitz runs one-on-one and group sessions through her Berkowitz Civility Group. She also recommends the following resources for continued reading on conflict within family life.
What are some of your tactics for navigating conflict with your kids? Tell us in the comments!