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Temper, Temper: How can I keep from losing it around my kids?

I always thought I was a patient person, until I became a mom. I’m a good mom, and my kids know they are loved, but lately I’ve been feeling terrible about losing my temper with my five-year-old and three-year-old. They are just being kids in developmentally appropriate ways, but there always seems to be a point that I just lose it. Now I see my son losing his temper, and sounding frighteningly like me. I understand the idea that if I model respect, there will be more mutual respect, but as hard as I work at it, I still feel like I’m not making the gains I’d like to see. I WANT to act instead of react to situations, but it is super hard for me (I’m a passionate Italian!). Recently I bought a book called Scream-Free Parenting, which has been helpful, but I want so badly to guide my children differently. I feel like a good mom in a lot of ways, but it seems like I’m alone with my temper. When I talk to other moms they listen, but never talk about losing their patience. This leaves me feeling like a worse mom because other moms seem to be calm all the time. What can I do to break this cycle and teach myself, and my children to react calmly? – Impatient

Dear Impatient,

YOU ARE NOT ALONE! See, we’re screaming ourselves. Life with little kids is frustrating. Sisyphus would probably count his blessings if he saw the daily (hourly) struggles: Getting the kids into coats. Or into bed. Or into their chairs for dinner. Or stopping them from pummeling each other over mutually desired toys. Over. And. Over. Again. And maybe that Job guy could take it quietly, but we don’t know too many parents who don’t boil over sometimes. [Ed. note: Here’s a Bad Parent column by a mother in a similar situation.

Whether they admit it is something else. Losing it with kids is not something people are particularly proud of, so parents might conveniently forget or omit lapses in parental decorum. Also, people have different thresholds and expectations. To someone aiming for a truly “scream free” household, sharp words at the end of a long day might be crossing the line. To others, a swift, hard tone is so normal it doesn’t fall into the category of “losing your temper.” We definitely know a lot of mothers of kids this age who talk about this very issue all the time. And we wish you could talk to some of them to get some reassurance. All this is to say, in an inside voice this time: you’re not the only one.

So, the first step is to give yourself a break. Accept that you’re a person and that anger is a normal, if undesirable, response to unpleasant situations. Then you can start figuring out how to reduce outbursts within the realm of what can be expected from a real, probably tired and overworked human.

Some basic strategies for reducing the stress:

“Positive Parenting”

There are a number of books out there based on the theory that rewarding good behavior is a lot more effective than threats or punishments. Some use plain old praise, others augment with gold stars and concrete rewards. One unifying aspect of this approach is to always talk about what you expect from your kids rather than what you don’t want. This reframes each situation and offers solutions and “positive” ideas, instead of just an endless barrage of negativity. It can feel a little awkward (or fake) to change your tune when you’re still seething inside, but if you can do it, you may actually find yourself starting to feel more optimistic and less angry.

Time Outs

Time outs are controversial, but some people find them hugely effective. Yes, there’s the punitive time out of Supernanny, but a time out can also be a way for all aggravated parties to stop, separate, calm down and regroup. Parents can use time outs to help defuse anger before it gets out of control. If you feel that you’re about to lose it big time, take a breath and say, “WE need a time out,” or even, “I need a time out.” And you can just walk out of the room, take a second and then return to try and communicate in a more effective way. Among other things, this literally illustrates to a child how taking a short break can be helpful.

Set rules, follow through

Lay out your family’s important ground rules so everyone knows what’s expected of them. And then when a rule has been broken, follow-through, as dispassionately as possible, with whatever consequence you have set. Knowing in advance that you’re going to quietly do x, y or z might help you move through the stress of a punishment without boiling up.

Whatever else you can do to chill

Yoga, running, bathing, napping, spending twenty minutes running errands with your favorite music pumping through your iPod:try to make a plan for short, realistic snatches of time when you can do things that allow you a little escape. It’s a clich’, but time for yourself can be a huge help in maintaining perspective and calm.

We can definitely see the appeal of a Program when feeling out of control about discipline. There are lots of them out there, Scream-Free among them. But we’d urge you to consider what you think you can handle as well as your ultimate parenting ideal when you decide how to take this on. Kids at this age are hard in a particular way, but parenting will offer many opportunities for going into a rage:for years to come. The fact that you’re thinking about this now and trying to address it is great. By the time your kids are sneaking off with the car keys, you’ll be taking it in stride, Buddha-style. Okay, maybe not.

Have a question? Email beingpregnant@babble.com

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