I came across a book recently called How to Stop Losing your Shit with Your Kids by Dr Carla Naumburg . I laughed at the title because it was so pertinent. Beyond sleep training books and weaning books and potty books, isn’t that what every single parenting book should have as its title? Isn’t that the very essence of what we all struggle with as parents? Not losing our shit?
By the end of the summer holidays just gone I was a monster. Losing my shit left, right and centre. Sam’s language was out of control, turning the air blue at every perceived injustice, every setback. Kitty was sulky and non-verbal. I was tutting and rolling my eyes. It was awful.
Both children had fallen into the rather mindless habit of whacking my arse pretty much any time they saw me. “Stop whacking my arse!” I’d bellow at them and they’d laugh and run away and do it again an hour later.
The night before school went back – a full eight weeks of solid childcare since we had broken up – it was bath time and Sam casually smacked me on the arse. I snapped and went insane. I shouted and trembled and pointed and slammed drawers and threw things. Sam cried (he rarely does when he’s getting a telling-off, so you know it was bad) and said “But Mummy… I didn’t even know I was doing it!”
And in that instant I believed him. It was just a habit – one I had failed to correct properly, leading to this horrible meltdown.
Two days later, Sam was in trouble at school for behaving badly. He does, occasionally, behave badly – he’s six, he’s a boy, it happens – but I thought: Oh God, right. We need to do something.
I went home and downloaded the book and read it in two hours. It doesn’t say anything madly revolutionary – it just says it in such a non-judgmental, accessible, funny way that it hits you right between the eyes.
Your kids are not unusually hateful and bad, says the book. You have not raised devils and you are not an incompetent parent. Children – all children, but especially your own – are designed (for some insane reason) to drive you absolutely up the wall.
The killer line the book delivers is the observation that when you do lose your shit with your kids it feels great. It feels like a release and it feels like the kids absolutely damn right fucking deserved it for being such hateful little shits. HMPH! So there.
And yet, while Naumburg absolutely never seeks to make you feel bad for this behaviour, she makes it plain that losing your shit with your kids is not working.
For two reasons:
1 When you are losing your shit with your kids they can’t hear you. I don’t mean when you’re just angry, I don’t mean: “I do NOT like that behaviour, that is NOT okay.” I mean the out-of-control whirlwind, Greek-monster-of-myth-and-legend throttle machine. When you’re like that, your children are frightened and when they are frightened they can’t hear you because they are too busy worrying, quite rightly, that you are about to throw them under a bus. So if you think that by losing your shit you are in some way correcting their behaviour or teaching them some sort of lesson about how far they can push Mummy, you’re wrong.
With the bum-smacking thing, I sat down with both Kitty and Sam at the kitchen table with some milk and biscuits and we talked about the bum-smacking and about how I didn’t like it, how it made me feel. I also said I believed that they didn’t realise they were doing it, so I would help them out by reminding them each morning not to do it. Within 24 hours it had stopped completely. By God I felt like a pious dickhead doing this sort of calmer-than-thou “parenting” … but by God it worked.
2 Losing your shit with your kids will make your kids behave worse. I didn’t know what “acting out” meant for years until my therapist explained it to me. What it means is that your children (or you, or whomever) have a bad feeling inside and so they are acting to get it out. This explains why shortly after you have screamed at your kids, you might find them in a massive playfight or chasing each other round and round the house, shrieking. By shouting at them or smacking them or hurling insults or generally making them feel scared and like shit you have given them a bad feeling inside and they are trying to get it out.
My losing my shit with Sam had made him behave badly at school, I’m pretty sure of that.
I had thought that being kind and patient and flexible with my kids when they are behaving intolerably is spoiling them – but then I re-read a bit of Philippa Perry’s book – (as you can see, things were so bad at home that I was really putting my back into this) – that reminded me that children only learn patience and flexibility from us.
If you use shouting and threats and insults regularly as a form of “discipline” then that’s what your children will do to you. And to other people. You are also in danger of ending up with kids who have a massive problem with authority. Yes, sure, we don’t want to raise a load of forelock-tugging yes-sirs, but neither do we want kids who break the speed limit and take illegal drugs just because they have been programmed by aggressive, shouty parents to think “Fuck you”.
So what are we to do about this? I started this book thinking that there were going to be a whole load of SuperNanny-type suggestions about how to correct my children’s terrible behaviour but it quickly became apparent that this isn’t about the kids. This is about me. And it’s not about swallowing down my rage and always being perfect and amazing and a beatific saint. But it is about being an adult.
And part of being an adult – moreover, doom doom A PARENT – is recognising what set of circumstances is going to strip you of all your adult control and release the unreasonable, tantrumming toddler-monster that lurks within us all.
Naumburg describes these as “triggers” – it’s easy to assume that “triggers” are the things your kids do to send you berserk but in fact when she talks about triggers she means the things that set your teeth on edge before your kids are even in the room.
So for example my triggers are:
- Running late
- Trying to do more than one thing at once
- Not having any time to myself for days on end/claustrophobia
I can’t describe why just knowing all this has made a difference, but it has. Knowing and really understanding for certain that absolutely nothing positive will come from losing my shit with my kids; knowing what external circumstances will make me more likely to lose my shit with my kids; knowing that being patient and nice is not me being a sap or a pushover or spoiling them – has made it about 80% easier not to lose my shit with my kids.
Carla is at pains to point out that she doesn’t mean that you must never ever lose your shit with your kids or if you do it again next week you have failed. She’s just pointing out a few salient facts that may have passed us by – because we were too busy losing our shit to pay attention.
How To Stop Losing Your Shit With Your Kids is available here.