When Carla Naumburg found herself losing her cool with her kids again and again (and again) and not feeling especially good about any of it, she looked for help. Her Google search for “how to stop yelling at your kids” on a particularly tough night didn’t yield a lot of helpful tips, so the clinical social worker (and author of multiple parenting books) dug a bit more.
The result is her latest, “How To Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids,” which sorts through the reasons parents snap at their children (beyond the obvious that sometimes they’re annoying). And it attempts to give parents practical ideas about how to do better — both in terms of how we treat our children in tense moments and how we treat ourselves with compassion and care. Because we all snip and snap. It’s inevitable.
HuffPost Parents caught up with Naumburg to chat through some basic tips for keeping our collective cool in the face of little kid insanity.
This book acknowledges, often, that all parents lose it with their kids sometimes. Assuming you’re not having outbursts that are really extreme or even dangerous, how do you know if you’re maybe veering into problem territory?
Yes, we all lose it sometimes. That’s part of what happens in a really close relationship. I actually think it’s important for kids to learn that you can get angry with someone and that you can express that anger, and you can still have a healthy, loving relationship.
But if you’re losing it more often than you’re comfortable with, that’s when you want to pay attention.
What I want parents to know is that it doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad parent. And it’s not a matter of willpower. When you’re losing it with your kids more than you’d like, it’s a red flag that something is probably going on with you and manifesting itself in these explosions with your children.
It’s so important for parents to learn to identify their triggers, and they can be really different. (I’m really sensitive to noise, for example. My husband doesn’t notice it at all.) Learning them can help you get to the point where you’re able to say to yourself, “I’m about to lose it.”
That’s a big deal! Just being able to recognize that tell in yourself is really impressive, and parents should feel really good about it. If you find that you’re able to do that, stop and congratulate yourself.
But even if you can recognize that, how do you stop yourself from taking that next step and, you know, actually losing it?
I tell parents to do literally anything else. I have clucked like a chicken, because it helps get the energy out and because it’s so ridiculous it kind of snaps us all out of it.
One great thing to do is just get some space from your kid. If you have a baby, can you put the baby in the crib and walk away? If it’s a toddler, can you safely put them in the bedroom for a minute? Do you need to put your kid in front of a screen? (That’s why I tell parents to save screen time for when you need it, not when the kid needs it.) If it’s an older child, can you tell them: “I’m going to step into the other room to calm down”?
Then take some deep breaths, which are the only direct line we have to our nervous system.
So how do you zero in on your personal triggers?
A trigger is basically anything that makes it more likely that you’re going to lose your shit with your kid, and there are some pretty universal ones: chronic pain, financial stress and exhaustion are big ones. Doing the work to stop losing your shit with your kids means doing what you can to learn about your triggers, and trying to address them.
The truth is, sometimes you might not be able to. In my own life, I have learned to really focus on my sleep. But for parents who are already legitimately doing everything in their power to get more sleep and who can’t — because their schedules don’t allow it or maybe because there’s a baby at home — you have to lower your expectations. You have to cut yourself some slack and know that you might lose your shit more than you’d like. I really believe it’s not possible to stay patient when you’re exhausted.
“When you’re losing it with your kids more than you’d like, it’s a red flag that something is probably going on with you and manifesting itself in these explosions with your children.”
And what do you do if you’ve done all the work, and you’ve tried hard to stay calm, and you still snap?
Apologize! When I talk about this, there’s always one parent who says, “What? I can apologize?!” Parents sometimes worry they’ll undermine their authority, or upend the power dynamic. You won’t! You’re apologizing for the behavior. You don’t apologize for the feelings.
And that doesn’t mean you let your kid off the hook. Just because you say, you know, “I’m sorry that I yelled at you when we were trying to get out the door” doesn’t mean that you can’t also sit down and make a plan with your child about how they’re going to find their own shoes in the morning so you can get out the door.
You talk a lot about self-compassion in the book, which I think is something parents struggle with a lot. (Guilty!) Why?
It’s so important. We can always have compassion for ourselves. That can mean simply reminding yourself that you’re not alone and that every parent has yucky moments that feel bad.
And those are the moments when you want to ask yourself, “What can I do to take care of myself?” Have you exercised? Have you given yourself some quiet time if you need it? We know from research — and I know from my own personal experience — that this isn’t letting yourself off the hook for losing it. It makes it less likely that it will happen again. It’s so powerful.
Parenting is hard. Staying calm in difficult parenting moments is hard. It’s OK to have some compassion for yourself.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.