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.
Sounds like a big step forward for you all. Good timing too, having a 15 year old acting out is hellish.
I found the PP book really revelatory, and I’d already done quite a lot of work on this myself. I was keen to stop the face-offs between my husband and the kids as much as anything. Going from 0 to 100 over small issues was destroying their relationships.
Emily K says
I wonder if it would work with a two year old (just turned two). I desperately don’t want to keep shouting at him but he’s not old enough to understand that he can’t keep kicking me or hitting the baby.
With a two year old I would react as little as possible – just remove him from the situation or walk away if it’s you he’s hitting, speak firmly, but calmly. If you shout they just see it as getting attention for whatever it is they’re doing and it’s a horrible cycle, the only way to break it is to tone down the response they get for doing it, then make an out of proportion excited reaction when they are doing something you want to encourage like stacking cups quietly and leaving you the hell alone. Sorry I hate giving advice to people with small children, because it’s hard not to sound patronising and like it was easy for me or something, and it wasn’t, but this is what worked for me in this situation.
Peabody Bites says
Until my kids were 3 (and even a bit beyond) I found Janet Lansbury offered the best and gentlest advice. Her blog/podcast/books are full of situational advice and helped both me and the kids stay calm. I have a real hair trigger temper, as do my parents, and I didn’t want to bring my kids up in a shouty environment as I was and Janet is both excellent for alternatives and very compassionate about parental frustrations.
And raining in my language so my kids didn’t automatically say Fuck every time something went wrong was a hard lesson !!! I didn’t realise I was being quite so free with the F word until I heard expletives coming out of their small mouths and that was a wake up call
The alcohol things is so true, sadly. I find that even one drink the night before makes me incredibly ratty the next day, and then I feel doubly guilty afterwards.
This morning was shaping up to be stressful, but I made a conscious decision not to react if they kicked off because it just upsets me which upsets them more and it all calmed down a lot sooner and was actually fine. It does take that moment of stopping and realising that if you panic and overreact to, say, running late, that’s how you are showing them to respond to it. The main thing that is a problem for me is that all effective discipline really falls to me (he does try) and frustration with that. I’m always having to get involved somehow and it just reaches a point where I’ve had enough. I have started a thing where I’ll take whichever child is being tricky out for a stroll around and let them talk at me about whatever they want, even Minecraft, or I’ll either make them go and read for twenty minutes or I’ll read to them for a bit, as it occurred to me that they need to learn ways of dealing with feeling angry or sad too and I’m the one who is supposed to be teaching them.
Oh my god Minecraft is SO FUCKING BORING!!!!!!!!!!!!
Emily C says
Thank you Esther for writing a fuller post on this, following the really interesting discussion via Insta.
I inhaled the book like a drowning woman gasps for air. Summer was awful. The little one was feral and doolally. The big one was stroppy moody and horrid. The husband who, like many dads, is limited in his experience of hands on parenting was helpless. I was in an awful mood and feeling persecuted by these horrors I had somehow spawned. In my head I was panicking that I should never have tried this BS modern ‘empathetic’ parenting and stuck to the old authoritarian ‘do as I say’ ways…
Carla’s book was so funny and kind and bloody spot on. Understanding the situational context is key! Why did I lose it this time the kid was irritating… but not last time? What’s different this time compared to last time? Ah, yes, I’m hungry/ tired/ had a difficult work email/ I’m looking at the relentless clutter on every surface… and *then* the kid whines about being hungry 8 minutes after they rejected the dinner I made them. Aha! It’s not really about the rejected dinner. It’s really about all the other shit that set the scene.
So. So. Illuminating.
Her approach is practical and kind and realistic.
I was a bit shouty yesterday for the first time in the 10 days since I read this. A *bit* shouty. So even though I didn’t quite manage to Notice – Pause – Do Literally Anything Else, I didn’t go the full banana.
Even better than feeling more in control, is my eldest has been far more loving, funny and positive in her mood. When I shouted yesterday she looked crushed. I definitely will be using this to help me shout less and avoid those heart breaking crushed looks from my 8 year old.
Emily thank you for taking the time to write this WONDERFUL comment x
Thank you for pointing me in the direction of this fab book. My kids are 12 and 14, so I thought I was past the need for parenting books. But turns out that 8 weeks of summer holidays will still make me lose my rag occasionally, when I think my child/ren have acted badly/been rude or any other trigger-stimulating episode occurs. I downloaded the Kindle sample of this book when you first mentioned it (on Instagram I think) and it is BRILLIANT. I love the non-judgemental tone, and genuinely empathetic yet helpful advice. A great recommendation.
One of my triggers is not tending to my own needs, eg being hungry, thirsty, or needing the loo, and I keep on just ignoring it because I need to get the kids ready for school or whatever and am in a rush. Then one of the kids will irritate me, and because I’m already feeling shitty I’ll shout, they’ll cry, and the time taken for all the drama would be much longer than if I’d just had a bite to eat/a wee etc and had been a calmer person as a result.
I have one child that is a fire starter in that she can walk into a room and create world war 3 with one sentence. It doesn’t help that she’s the youngest of three and it usually kicks off at the dinner table on a Sunday night. This is the one night I like us all to eat together and I end up losing my shit that it isn’t like the Waltons. Maybe I need to change my expectations, maybe we need to eat together at lunchtime instead or maybe we need to change the seating plan at the table. I don’t know but this is a huge trigger for me and it has to change as I am so tired of hearing myself losing my shit.
The fire starter is very self aware and repentant immediately afterwards ‘I wouldn’t tolerate it if I was you either’ which does nothing to allay the guilt.
Loved your stories on this last week. Got it on Audible and it’s a refreshing listen.
Realised my outbursts are really down to my triggers…..it’s not just the damn Lego strewn everywhere and incessant questions from the sproglets. It’s generally my tierdness and the responsibily of minding 2 little ones for 95% of the day, every bloody day. PMS week is always a no-go area too, but that’s going to need another solution!
Thanks for sharing, it’s been such a great help
I bought this book immediately after seeing you talk about it on stories Esther and am SO glad I did. Like Peabody above I was raised in a *shouty* household and so I started my parenting life determined that I wouldn’t continue this cycle – however, those times when my back has just been against the wall, through job stress, extended family drama, sleeplessness, whatever, I think it is very easy to fall back into a learned pattern of behaviour: in that moment, with coping mechanisms exhausted, I just shout because “that’s what parents do”. The thing about recognising our triggers (and understanding that the triggers are NOT the kids’ behaviours) has been utterly revelatory for me: so bloody simple but so bloody genius – literally cannot understand how I didn’t work all this out before now! My triggers are tiredness, job-related worries, needing to get life admin sorted at the same time as the kids needing me to do something “right this second”, extended periods of zero personal space and being late for school or essential appointments etc. Just knowing this has helped me, and more importantly, my gorgeous boys, SO much 🥰🥰👍
Oh God, yes on PMS week. May be that could be a topic for an article – what helps?? Mine seems to be just getting worse with years.
I’ve just read Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan, which is about how the monthly cycle affects mental and physical health, and though it doesn’t offer any solutions, it is quite useful in considering different ways of looking at and dealing with it all. It is science based more than it is alternative stuff, but it’s not heavy and the author talks about her own particular situation as a way in to it.
Does she also do ‘How to stop losing your shit with your husband’ ??
Ah for that you need a book called “What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage”
Brilliant thanks, Esther
Re PMT – it was making me a really horrible parent. My really nice GP says she and her colleagues all stopped their periods once they’d had kids, I.e. progesterone pill without a break. She pointed out that women not designed to have so many cycles as we should be pregnant until peri-menopause. Changed my life. The data and evidence looks fine as long as you monitor blood pressure. X
Jules C says
Thanks Esther and everyone for sharing your experiences. I’ve found myself on the opposite side of this and that is ‘Parenting Older Parents’. Relocation has meant they are temporarily living with me and it is mainly lovely except that having been alone all day the minute I set foot in the house after a 12 hour day at work I am bombarded with the pent up queries and requests of the day. Last night they were watching from the window for my cab arriving and before my coat was off I was helping with parcel opening, trying to find some nail polish and answering hypothetical house sale questions
All fine if I had a chance to decompress before the flood! They have developed an annoying habit of thrusting documents at me without any further information, just a ‘read it and see what you think’. Trying to be patient and think I can definitely take some of this advice though!
Oh Jules! That sounds enervating.
Jules C says
Thanks Esther, yes indeed. It feels really lonely and then I feel like I am being ungrateful. Onwards!
Louise Rowntree says
My kids are now 23 and 26, I wish I had this kind of advice when they were younger. I am haunted by memories of shouting at them, but I did remember how lovely my mum was with me and it was always the worry of disappointing her that kept me on the straight and narrow so I reigned myself in when I could. My boys are now lovely young men. Parenting is tough.
My kids are just 2 and 7 months so I haven’t really lost it with them yet, although I’m sure this will be useful when they get to the annoying stage(s). My issue is loosing my shit with my husband, sometimes for good and valid reasons (promising to do the kids tea, deciding to cook a jacket potato in the oven 10 minutes before teatime, resulting in late dinner and everyone screaming…I mean for FFS) but quite a lot of the time it’s because I am so profoundly jealous that his life hasn’t really changed since becoming a father, while mine has had to change beyond recognition. And the fact that I am in charge of EVERYTHING, so he can be a bit useless with supper time, and birthday cards and remembering snacks because I’m always there to pick up the pieces. Plus I feel confused that my generation of women have been raised and educated to be these incredible high flyers but everywhere I look we’re knee deep in shit, tending to our little angels and cooking our husband’s dinners because there isn’t really a viable childcare alternative that is both cost effective and provides the kind of one-to-one nurturing that little children seem to need. I’m on my second maternity leave and have no idea what I should do with my life because the kind of mother I want my kids to have isn’t necessarily the kind of mother I want to be. So I quite frequently go ballistic at my husband in the hope he’ll understand but of course he doesn’t and I end up feeling more alone, with him probably wondering where his fun wife went. I’m not really sure why I’m writing this comment (slightly off topic) other than I thought maybe someone else here would understand. And perhaps there’s a book recommendation to help?
Mills I’m sorry not to have replied to this sooner. You are so right about the weird social state of women doing everything despite being raised to be CEOs. It it utterly baffling. And so right about childcare. And so right about everything. And all I can say is: you’re not getting it wrong. 2 and 7 months with no proper childcare is a fucking shitstorm. It was a shitstorm and I had some childcare (not loads, but some). Don’t worry about not knowing what to do with your life – that’s just your maternity leave mind messing with you. I have no advice other than time, sorry – that’s not what you want to hear. But when they’re all at nursery, which will happen quite soon, you will still be alive with your whole life ahead of you and you can implement some changes. If not sooner than that! Hang on. I had a ring made once that said “Hold Fast” on it. And I wore it when Sam was a baby and life was just hard work and nothing else except work and wiping and bending and wiping and poo and snot and vomit and wiping. Advice to me from those further on was always “just hold on to something very tight and close your eyes and wait for it to be over” and they were broadly right.
Thanks, Esther. I’m going to save this and reread it when I’m feeling especially down/frustrated. It’s not that I hate my life, it’s just relentless and so important and the responsibility is overwhelming. And then they fall asleep and you’re wracked with guilt that you weren’t fun or engaging enough and it’ll be over so soon etc etc. I just wish you could win at motherhood by working really hard (linked to raising women to be ceos!) rather than constantly second guessing your own decisions. Anyway, I’m relieved it’s not just me and I’ll hold tight x
I really hear you xxx
I think the rhetoric spun at mothers of babies and toddlers of “cherish every minute” can be debilitating – it does go by fast, but also achingly slowly, and it’s all just a bit of this and a bit of that, buckets of rain, moments of redemption. When mine were tiny and I was feeling anxious I made it a thing to make each of them laugh at least once a day, and check it off my list, just to reassure myself, and it helped me notice that I was more fun than I thought I was and that it wasn’t all misery and mess from their point of view, they just wanted me around. Your relationship with your children is one you keep having to remake at each stage and nobody’s perfect and nobody who really cares about it can get it totally wrong. You have the time to be more than one kind of mother before they’re grown, so yes, hold tight x
Husbands are dicks – see the school run post comments! But do TELL him why you are furious. Mine is completely blind to my perception of various situations, and many arguments have stemmed from my lack of communication. Like the kid thing, pick a moment when you aren’t fuming, and have a ‘just so you know, next time I scream at you, it’s because … [insert small proportion of your list of grievances here ]‘ conversation. Do not underestimate the value of short, simple instructions, eg ‘if you offer to do a quick supper then option A/ option B would be perfect, thanks’. And remember, most of us DO feel like this a lot of the time. Mine has an infuriating habit of seeing that I’m really busy, asking ‘what can I do to help?’, then following my suggestion with ‘oh, I don’t want to do that’ in carious terms. Which. Makes. Me. Want. To .Kill. Him. Or throw things at him. You really aren’t alone, hun x
Various terms. Not ‘carious’.
Anon, my replies aren’t saving but thank you for understanding xxx
Two of my kids are autistic (and the one who isn’t probably is but we can’t be arsed to go through diagnosis because URGH it takes YEARS and he’s mostly OK). So shitty children is something I have an hourly experience of, and I do shout a lot. BUT there is nothing quite like sitting them down at the table and telling them how ABSOLUTELY FURIOUS I am in a calm voice, with bloody DIAGRAMS if necessary, to get the older two to understand.
(From Dex, who doesn’t get wordpress)
Dex I love you. Have I said that before