How not to lose your cool

When the kids have a meltdown, it's your time to shine

Some parents know it as the hour of meltdown – the time of day when everything in their home seems to spiral out of control. The overtired toddler is screaming, the newborn needs to eat, the phone is ringing, dinner is cooking, the first-grader is fighting with his older sister over the remote, and you…just…want… to…lose …it!

And while the inner angry parent is about to explode, this is when you need to be the most calm. How you deal with those crazy, stressful moments all parents endure can mean more than you know to your kids.
“You will face challenging behavior,” says Aviva Schwab, who has been teaching parents for more than 25 years how to communicate with, guide, and discipline children through STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting). “You have to remember that you’re dealing with a child and can’t expect a child to be a miniature adult.”

Experts say besides maintaining calm, the most effective way of avoiding meltdowns is by making sure they don’t even happen. Most parents lose patience because they don’t have a behavior management system in place, says Dr. Paul Schwartz, a child development expert and professor at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. “You need to establish a system before things get to Def Con 4. Setting this up precludes the sandpapering away of one’s patience.”

Setting up a system of time-outs so your children know there is no yelling or arguing or talking their way out of something is the pre-emptive strike to avoid conflict, adds Schwartz. If your child is having a tantrum, that means “somewhere along the line, the system broke down because there never was a system in place.”

Knowing yourself is also a key to understanding how you react to your children. You need to ask, “Why am I doing this?” “Some women will just sit and cry when they’re overwhelmed. Some will go in another room and punch a pillow or scream or even do sit-ups. But, anything that exerts physical energy can help you,” says Peggy Whalen, founder of the SKIPPER Initiative, which educates parents on the dangers of Shaken Baby Syndrome. The group stresses planning ahead “so you don’t get in that moment or even close to that moment and have to figure out what to do.”

Create a buddy system, says Whalen, mom of 6-year-old John and George “Skipper” Lithco. Skipper was 11 months old when he died in 2000, days after suffering head trauma at the hands of his 51-year-old babysitter, who shook him when she became angry that the baby spit up and cried. “Have a person you can call or visit just to say ‘I need five minutes.’ Just that break from the stress can do so much in the midst of a meltdown,” says Whalen. “You really can’t think clearly when anger levels get high.

“Your plan needs to be in place before things go out of control so you can focus on what to do instead of what not to do,” Whalen adds. “You need to recognize the signs. Part of it is knowing yourself. Is there someone you can call for help? Can you put the child in a car seat and go driving?”

Most important to parents is to find some type of calm, even when you think it doesn’t exist. If a child starts a tantrum – whether it’s a three-year-old over naptime or a 15-year-old over curfew – say something empathetic, even if the child can’t hear you, says Schwab, a mom of two and grandma of four.

“They can tell from your body language that you’re not getting angry and you’re not going to give in,” she says. “As long as they’re not breaking anything or disrupting the quiet in a public place, you should ignore it and go about your business so they see you’re not getting annoyed or giving in or being impressed in any way.”

Schwab, whose nine-week course is available throughout the Hudson Valley and on CD, recommends all parents take a course to help deal with behavior and other parenting issues. “We take a course to learn how to be a plumber, a surgeon, a teacher, an auto mechanic,” she says. “This is the most important job and people are just winging it with no real training.”

STEP teaches parents about modeling respect to their children, giving them consequences rather than punishment, and creating environments where kids can be themselves. “Put kids in a situation where they can feel useful instead of setting them up for a problem,” Schwab says. Remember not to be hard on yourself if you do lose your cool. It happens, experts say.

“Parents need a lot of empathy. Some parents are so distraught when they do mess up and overreact,” says Schwab. “They should forgive themselves and go back and apologize to the child. It’s human to make mistakes.” Just remember, when you apologize, leave it at sorry – don’t add the “but if you would only…” caveat, she adds. It’s never too late to create a system of behavior management in your family, experts say, and it’s the best step you can take to help keep your cool.

Liz Consavage Vilato is a freelance writer living in Dutchess County.