Originally published on Motherly.
By Rachel Gorton
We were so close to getting out the door on time and for once I felt like maybe, just maybe we would bypass the morning meltdown.
I decided not to fight the clothing battle. I prepared snacks that gained my son’s approval. I even remained calm when he spilled the milk all over the table, inches from where my phone was lying — no use crying over spilled milk, right?
But just like every other morning in our household, the tantrum rears its ugly head and there I stood, standing at the door, watching my child lose his mind.
This time it was over the suggestion that he should leave his football at home instead of trying to sneak it in his backpack and risk it getting taken away at school.
I’m not sure I will ever quite understand how it is possible for such a simple request to be the cause of the wrath that followed, but I have realized a way to keep my sanity during such erratic outbursts.
You see, as we finally made it to school and I watched him walk away with a scowl that seems to be stuck on his face, I repeated to myself: He’s not trying to give me a hard time — he’s having a hard time.
This insight, for me, has been a mindset shift that has made a big difference in how I respond and help my child.
As exhausted as I am and as hard as it is to remain calm and in control when my child is screaming “I hate you,” I’ve learned that it is not about me. The moment I stopped taking it personally, is when I was able to start navigating these tricky situations calmly and effectively.
But it took me a long time to get here.
Previously, I tried to pretend like the behavior wasn’t happening. Ignoring the freak outs worked about 40 percent of the time.
I tried disciplining in the moment with a reminder that consequences were coming, which created a consistent “I don’t care” response.
I even succumbed to the idea that I could control every negative display of behavior or just give in to avoid the storm — as you can imagine this did not work.
Then, I started noticing a pattern in my responses: I was either trying to make the behavior stop or trying to prevent the behavior from happening completely — and then feeling like a failure when it (inevitably) did not go as I expected.
I also realized a common theme in my physical response — I felt hot, overwhelmed, and some form of anger, and it did not feel good.
Finally it clicked: “If this situation doesn’t feel good to me, I’m sure it doesn’t feel good to him either.”
Once I could see his struggles from a lens of empathy, I was able to respond in love.
When he’s upset that I didn’t make the breakfast he wanted — I’m learning that he’s feeling frustrated with his lack of control over some aspects of his life.
When he’s upset the TV needs to turn off, he might be sad that fun time has come to an end.
When he refuses to get out the door on time, he might be needing some more quiet time together before that day before school.
I realized how expectations drive much of our disappointment and that disappointment often leads to anger — especially in boys. I discovered this after many desperate conversations with child psychologists but also from my own experiences.
“In that moment of empathy, I got to be the mom my son needed. Crisis averted.”
When I want something and assume I’m going to get it, but someone tells me no, I am not exactly happy about it. Yet so much of the time I expected my son to just “deal with it.”
I’m pretty sure my son doesn’t intentionally come up with ways to give me a hard time. I know he loves me and I know that he struggles to understand ways to cope with his disappointment and manage his own overwhelming feelings.
I know sometimes he is tired and hungry and he is trying to tell me that with his behavior but I’m not listening. But I also know that when I stay calm and when I show him that there are healthy ways of expressing these big, scary emotions that I’m the parent he needs in that moment.
Yes we will talk about consequences after inappropriate behavior, and yes he will continue to be disappointed when I say no to things he wants — but instead of trying to push my own agenda on him, I’m going to keep my cool and show him that is possible for him to do hang on and deal with his emotions, too.
And guess what? Parenting with the knowledge that he’s not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time actually feels really good. Today I am patting myself on the back after gracefully dealing with another morning meltdown.
And in that moment of empathy, I got to be the mom my son needed. Crisis averted.
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