Earlier this week I had a serious short-fuse day. My husband gave me a lie in (first one in a while) til 7.30, which was wonderful. I bounced down the stairs, refreshed and showered and full of energy.
But that was as good as my day got. From then on, things went from bad to worse.
Little Bu is going through a phase of not listening to me, and sometimes outright defying me. It’s a normal stage; a natural part of her developing her sense of self and independence from me. But it’s downright infuriating! I’ve discovered that it’s a trigger for me, and I don’t react particularly well to it. Perhaps because I’m a bit of a control freak.
So by 9am I was at the end of my tether. I told Mr Bu “we need a code word and I need to use it right now. Pineapples. There we go. I’m done.” And I walked into the bathroom, locking the door behind me.
10 minutes later, I re-emerged after some bathroom-based meditation, and Little Bu was still pressing exactly the same buttons. I was preparing to dig deep when a friend called me. She was calling to ask how I managed to keep so calm and avoid getting cross with Little Bu; what my tips & tricks were and whether I could write a post about it. Aside from being flattered, I couldn’t help but laugh, given the morning I’d been having.
But it got me thinking; I’d love to have a list of tools to hand for those tough days, so here it is! In the order that I’ve found works best, too – from the simplest step right up to emergency measures for when things really escalate.
People always put this one first, and ‘taking a few deep breaths’ has never really worked for me. But if you combine it with mindfulness it can make all the difference.
As you inhale, focus on the sensation of the air moving through your nose, pause for a moment before exhaling, and then notice the feeling of the air passing back out through your nose.
(Side note – often we’re advised to breathe in through our noses and out through our mouths but this isn’t particularly wise if you are anywhere dusty, with air pollution, pollen etc as the particles you breathe in have no way of being expelled if you breathe out through your mouth, and subsequently end up in your lungs).
Taking yourself out of the stressful situation like that, by becoming mindful of something so simple, and by getting some calming breaths in, can lower your heart rate, rebalance the chemicals in your brain and give you a chance for a little perspective. It can work wonders!
Verbalise their emotions
This sounds like a coping technique for your little ones rather than for you, but it really is both.
For your little one, it gives them the language to communicate their feelings. Plus, putting labels on their feelings make them less scary and more manageable.
That rising anger they’re feeling when they’re not allowed those chocolates at the supermarket check-out suddenly feels much less scary when you say “You’re feeling angry that I won’t let you have those chocolates. That’s ok, we all feel angry sometimes.” It might not resolve the issue, but it’ll make the emotions more manageable for them.
For you, it helps you step away from your own emotions and think about theirs. What they’re dealing with is not about you; they’re not doing it to get you riled up. They’re feeling big emotions that are probably scaring them, and they don’t know how to calm down by themselves. This is your time to step in and help them, and whilst getting your anger out with a reprimand or a shout might (very) temporarily make you feel better, it won’t solve anything in the long run. Take a step back, think about how they’re feeling, get down to their level and verbalise it to them. Combined with your mindful breathing this should help you get back on an even keel.
A cuddle in a stressful time can dissipate all of the high energy beautifully. Sometimes, giving them a hug, when instead you’d like to run around screaming in frustration, can melt your stress away. The smell of their hair, the feel of their little arms around your neck, the weight of their little bodies resting against you can release enough oxytocin to get rid of your negative energy. And the same is often true for them. All they want is for you to slow down, get down to their level, hold them and listen.
Change the situation completely
If the above options haven’t worked, the next step is to take a U-turn. I love this. Unless your little one’s (or your) temper have already escalated too far, this one can work miracles.
After verbalising their emotions, and giving them time to process and possibly calm down, and if you’re both still struggling, you can change the mood by doing something silly, or funny, or suggesting something fun to do.
I hate when people recommend distraction in favour of validating your child’s emotions, but if you’ve already verbalised their feelings, this is the prime time to snap them and yourself back into your usual bouncy moods.
For example, this morning Little Bu and I went out for a fruit salad at a local coffee shop. Midway through eating, she started getting upset about the grapes being cut in half. She was starting to shout about it and I was wondering if we’d need to leave early, when my fork slipped as I tried to pick up a piece of watermelon. It went shooting across the table. Little Bu and I started laughing, and her anger was forgotten.
In this instance it was an accident, but you can create this yourself by doing or suggesting something unexpected. My go-to options are usually to gasp and say “oh my gosh, we forgot to pick the tomatoes today! Shall we go collect a basket of yummy tomatoes?” or “Hey, how do you fancy some painting/waterplay/baking”. The change in situation can help them calm down and dispel your mood equally as quickly.
Pretend someone is watching
This trick really helps if you’re not able to change the situation. For example, you’re midway through the bedtime routine, and you’re getting frustrated because they’re resisting teeth brushing/bath/pyjamas etc. If you’re struggling to remain calm and you’re tempted to get cross, try pretending that someone is watching you. Imagine you’re in the middle of a play date. Would you snap so easily if others were present?
I don’t see this as a coping technique, rather a trick to help in the short term. If you have emotions bubbling away, pushing them down deeper isn’t particularly healthy in the long term. Really we should be using techniques that help us deal with the emotions rather than push them inside, but it can certainly protect your little one from seeing your frustration.
Put them in water
Again, it sounds like a way to help them rather than you. But the two go hand in hand. If your temper is rising, they will feel it and react. If they’re experiencing big emotions, you might feel your temper rising too.
So find a form of water play to calm them down and subsequently give you time to breathe and regroup. Little Bu isn’t a fan of baths. Instead, we alternate between a bucket on the deck with measuring cups and pebbles, and a slowly running tap over a bowl filled with cups & cutlery in the sink. She will be fascinated every single time, and I get sometimes as much as 20-30 minutes to calm down and avoid her realising I was close to the end of my tether.
Get out of the house
If things have escalated further than this and you feel like you’re going to scream, get out of the house. Go somewhere, anywhere. I find that going for a walk doesn’t help me much, but heading out in the car to somewhere with lots of people soon distracts us both and I start to feel calmer much quicker. Often just putting some music on in the car can help dispel my temper.
Chat to your tribe
My close group of GP/AP friends and I have a Whatsapp group set up, and as soon as one of us is reaching breaking point, we know that we can vent on the group and get some support. Sometimes just venting is enough, but other times the suggestions, advice and sympathy of friends can make the world of difference.
Even better, organise an impromptu play date. It gets you out of the house, and gives you another adult to talk to. The change in situation combined with the sympathetic ear of a friend can turn your whole day around! My friends hopefully know that whenever I can, I’ll drop whatever I’m doing for one of these play dates!
Develop a code word for moments when you really need to escape or take a break
If there is another adult helping you raise your little one (partner, grandparent etc), I LOVE my new (as of this week) strategy of having a code word. It’s easy to grit your teeth and start to direct your anger towards your partner or your little one when you’re feeling at the end of your tether. Instead of taking it out on them, develop a code word that your little one won’t understand the context of, and use it to flag that you are at breaking point and you need them to take over for a short while. And vice versa too!
Make sure you’re getting some ‘Me Time’
This is a longer term tip as it won’t really help in the moment. But if you’re finding yourself at the end of your tether more and more often, make sure you take some time for yourself whenever you can grab it. Take a bath in the evening; go to the cinema/gym/mall whenever you have the opportunity for some alone time; book a home-visit manicurist to come after your little ones’ bedtime, or find a regular time each week to do your favourite hobby. It can make all the difference.
Above all else, remember how little they are. Look at them. Really look at them. See how tiny they are and remember how important you are to them. You are their safe place.