I’d wager that many parent’s worst child-wrangling experience has taken place inside a Chuck E. Cheese, or some off-brand equivalent. There must be something about the potent mixture of sugar, adrenaline, and germs that is ripe for a little one’s emotional undoing.
That was certainly the case for Lydia M., a mom of two in California, who can effortlessly call up a memory of her then 7 and 3-year-old melting down at the play space’s prize booth. When her kids realized they could neither afford the trinkets they wished for individually nor agree upon the best way to share their winnings, they “simultaneously went nuts.”
I was mad at parenting books and articles for years … I needed a book about group dynamics and group management!
“I’m talking screaming, wailing, bashing their heads into the glass counter, flinging themselves to the floor (eeeewwww)—the whole thing,” Lydia said. “I was filled with an embarrassed rage so pure that I managed to stoically and wordlessly pick them both up, put one over each shoulder, and stagger out the door with them.”
While Lydia’s story has delighted me in so many ways—commiserating laughter aside—it speaks to a little-addressed truth about parenthood: so often we are tasked with handling, not just one freakout, but many. And too often, the parenting guides we look to for help address, not many simultaneous freakouts, but one. As Leah L., a mom of seven shared with me, “I was mad at parenting books and articles for years … I needed a book about group dynamics and group management!”
To help ease the pains of caregivers everywhere, I brought in the professionals to solve this disconnect. Below, three expert parenting coaches lay out the practical dos and don’ts of managing two or more unhappy kids at once.
Understand the Issues at Play
In high tension moments, my instinct is to be reactive, not contemplative. Earlier this week, I found myself on a team call while both of my daughters sobbed from separate rooms—my youngest adding to our collective distress by pacing in too-big tap shoes. If it weren’t for the fact that my camera was on during this Zoom meeting, I likely would have melted down alongside of them.
In these moments, parenting coach MegAnne Ford encouraged parents to search for understanding. “What an incredibly disempowered feeling for everyone involved,” she said. “This tends to happen at the most inconvenient time, with added pressure, and possibly around some sort of transition.”
Check for Safety
Before you tend to anyone’s tears, do what Ford calls a “safety scan.” Generally, when I leave my toddler’s side for a minute or two and come back to an enraged scream—or worse, that silent, open-mouthed sob—I feel for bumps and bruises. Is anyone physically hurt? Start here, Ford advised, and if the answer is “yes,” get a Band-Aid and move on.
Be Compassionate—to Yourself and Your Kids
I have never felt so defeated or helpless as when my children are both unleashing every big feeling they have in their souls. The key to getting through these moments, coach Sarah Rosensweet offered, is to apply compassion to everyone you see–yourself included. She suggested that you take a moment to remind yourself that, not only is your situation not an emergency, but that you can handle it like you always do. Then, turn that kindness onto your kids.
“The only time we as humans want to calm down is when we are empathized with,” Rosensweet said. “And it’s important to remember that you don’t have to agree to empathize. Staying calm yourself also helps kid, as they can ‘borrow’ your calm.”
Ford cautioned parents against rushing in to referee sibling arguments and misunderstandings. “Step tenderly into sibling quarrels,” she said. “Remember they are both your children looking for love and support from you. They are both having a challenging time and what they want more than an answer from you is acceptance.”
There are times when nothing about motherhood seems fair. For example, if you stop to console one child after a double-meltdown, the other feels like an afterthought. So, how can you turn your attention on one kid without abandoning the other? The key, Rosensweet offered, is in physical connection.
“If possible, you can have one child on either side of you with an arm around each, even as you tend to one,” she said. Alternatively, you can narrate to one sibling while providing hands-on care for the other. Rosensweet suggested using phrases like, “I hear you need me too. I am here. I’ll be with you in just a minute.”
Don’t Embrace Perfection
To positive parenting coach Danielle Bettman, the answer to managing our kids’ simultaneous breakdowns starts with us. The more we turn inward and tend to ourselves, the greater equipped we’ll be to meet our children’s needs, she explained.
Perfection isn’t the goal—an authentic relationship with our kids is.
“Perfection isn’t the goal—an authentic relationship with our kids is,” Bettman said. “[One] in which we attempt to lead by example and apologize and repair when we inevitably mess up, and one where our kids feel safe enough to express the full spectrum of their thoughts and feelings with us.”
Don’t Rush to Judgment
“Our knee-jerk reaction is to jump fast into pulling on the reigns of the situation by becoming the judge and jury,” Ford said. “But notice and release the urge to use labels like ‘you’re the older one,’ or ‘you’re the bigger one.'” Instead, she suggested validating your child’s feelings by putting words to the emotions you see.
“When we can call out the big emotion and give it a name, we are conveying the message of, ‘I see you. I hear you!'” Ford said. “And after your child feels that message, they can begin the process of calming down.”
Don’t Blame or Shame
When my youngest was born, I’ll admit that everything in our house went sideways—especially my then 4-year-old. Unmoored by this new and adorable addition to our family, my oldest upped her tantrum game to a near professional level. In one particularly painful afternoon, she spent the better part of an hour wailing from room to room. You better believe I issued plenty of blame and shame for that behavior and the impact it had on everyone else in the house.
Children are naturally compassionate. They are quick to repair and often have brilliant solutions when asked to be involved in the process.
If I had a time machine, however, I’d take Ford’s advice in a heartbeat. “Resist the urge to invalidate, shame, and blame in the difficult moments. Instead, open up and position yourself as a mediator and not an investigator,” she said. “Ask questions like, ‘How can I help?’ instead of ‘Why did you do that?’ Children are naturally compassionate. They are quick to repair and often have brilliant solutions when asked to be involved in the process.”