To the mum of little kids who asked me if she should be doing better: you're doing great!

Young mum, you asked me recently if I thought you should be doing better with your kids. You said, “I get to the end of the day and I wish I hadn’t been so angry, or lost my patience. I wonder if I’m scarring my children. I want to be able to get it right, but I don’t seem to be able to.”

Okay, first, breathe.

You’ve got multiple tiny children, including a baby. This is more than likely going to be the time of your life that is most physically challenging, most tiring and most stretching. You have almost no time to yourself, day or night. It’s incredibly hard to feel like you’re in any sort of control at this stage. 

The fact that your children are breathing, are fed and growing, are clothed adequately, and clean; the fact that they appear to be happy and well-mannered the majority of the time, and are socialised, is a massive win. Honestly? You should be congratulating yourself. If you want to be competitive, you are not only falling well within the range of ‘normal’, you are doing better than many.

Don’t discount your successes. In fact, I suggest you keep a daily diary in which you give yourself ‘points’ for every win you have. 

  • Got the dinner (home cooked, and with vegetables) on the table? Five points.
  • Had a sleepless night and a terrible day with a kid who screamed, but fed them a balanced meal - scratch that, any sort of meal - in front of the TV? Six points. 
  • Stopped yelling, and apologised later? Twenty points. Go girl!

Focus on the positives and be thankful for what you did achieve. It changes your outlook.

Let’s face it: stay-at-home parenting of pre-schoolers, toddlers and babies is very possibly the most energy-time-motivation-sucking task some people will ever do, despite the fact that we want to do it and we love our children so much we'd throw ourselves under the bus for them. 

Also, and this is a killer for parents of little kids: there is always more you could do. There is more playing, more teaching, more stimulation, more playdates and socialising you could be fitting into the day.

And what about all the things we hear are absolutely essential for the life and health of our kids: swimming lessons, music lessons, sport and balance, yoga, read-alouds… the list goes on. Are you doing enough? Scratch the great web of parenting advice and you’ll see there’s a fine balance between doing enough and doing too much, and hot-housing, and helicopter parenting, and whatever else someone sees fit to criticise these days.

So, dear young mum. You’re doing great. Focus on your wins, and not on your fails, and you’ll see things from a different perspective. You can’t do it perfectly: it’s literally not possible. Also, your children will be scarred in different ways throughout life, and that’s just, well, ‘life’. They probably won’t be scarred by you, if you hug them and enjoy them and apologise to them where it’s needed. (And no matter what you do, they’ll probably all head to a therapist when they are 30, have a big whinge and moan, and then, when they’re 35, they’ll figure out you were doing the very best you could and ring you up and apologise to you.) 

HOWEVER.

If you truly think that you are indeed too cranky, and lose your cool too often, and you know that you possibly could change and things might be better if you did, there are actually things you can do that will help. 

First, analyse.

Take a few days to figure out:

  • When you lose your cool (time of day, during a certain type of activity, after a sleepless night)
  • Why you lose your cool (is it one particular child who’s winding you up, or is it because the baby’s crying, or perhaps you’re over tired that day)
  • How you lose your cool (screaming, physical reactions, sulking: is there a long build up, or do you explode out of nowhere?)
  • What self-talk you get involved with before, after and during the cranky event
  • How the kids react when you lose it

    Keep a diary of it for a little while. You could also use a video camera set up to catch everything on camera. I know it’s scary to think about, but watch it back, with sound, and then without sound. You will catch all sorts of things that may not be immediately obvious to you about your reactions.

Second, plan.

There are a couple of ways to minimise meltdowns in your life. One is to avoid them entirely, another is to change your thinking about them, and yet another is to react differently when you’re in them.

Avoiding meltdowns entirely can be done by restructuring your day or your activity so that the trigger times are eliminated. If everyone loses it in the car on the way home from swimming (for example) consider quitting swimming until you can get lessons in an earlier time slot. Or, feed everyone before they get in the pool. Or don’t waste time changing them out of their togs: just bundle them up in towels and get home quicker. 

Is bath time the evil hour where mummy loses it entirely? Ask these questions: who says you have to have a bath every day? Who says you have to bath at night? Dinner time is probably always going to be horrible. But you could improve things by looking at what the kids are eating at afternoon tea time. Sugary snacks are going to leave them crashing right when you don’t need them to crash. Something high in protein at 4pm to keep them going can work wonders. Schedule your TV time while you prepare the dinner. Or pre-prepare, and eat from your slow cooker for a few weeks. 

Essentially, look at every step you go through in a particular event: do you need it? Streamline, simplify, change it around. 

Changing your thinking about meltdowns can help you minimise them as well. Most meltdowns (kid or grownup) spring up out of some kind of need. The kid is hungry, or thirsty, or tired, or uncomfortable, or overwhelmed, or angry that his brother just stole his favourite toy. The grownup is hungry, or thirsty, or tired, or uncomfortable, or overwhelmed, or angry that her kids just took all her free time and her career, and her personality and her energy, and her motivation, and her social standing. Y’know, normal stuff.

This is where it’s really key to identify needs accurately, and find a way to meet them, both for yourself and for your children. I find it unhelpful to label a child as ‘naughty’ because that doesn’t offer a solution. Far better to figure out why they are behaving the way they are: there is pretty much always a reason, even if it’s: “This child needs firmer boundaries and a few more cuddles.” 

Also, easy words like ‘I’m so angry’ or ‘He wound me up’ to describe grown-up meltdowns aren’t necessarily helpful. A better way to approach it is to ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” Discard your surface answers: they generally don’t help. With practice, you will come down to answers like: “I need some appreciation. I feel like I’ve done everything, yet no one even notices,” or “I want 20 minutes of uninterrupted time to myself.”

Once you’ve identified the need, you’re in a position to meet it, whether it’s changing the baby’s nappy, or giving yourself a high five for sorting the washing that day. Or ringing a friend and saying, “I want you to tell me that I did good today.”

Sometimes, to have your needs met, you need to ask for help from someone. This may feel impossible, or embarrassing, but you only need to find one person who’s reasonably compassionate and mature, and who remembers what it was like to have little kids. It’s more than likely they will help you. It’s quite probable, though, that you’ve already cultivated the sort of friendships where you can ask for help. (Just make sure you give as much as you take, and take as much as you give, so it’s mutual.)

If you can possibly meet needs before they arise, you’re doing even better. “Today I know I’m going to be super tired, because I didn’t sleep, so I’m going to allow myself to have a break from doing X or Y,” or, “We’ll skip going to Z or K today, or we’ll have a bit of extra TV time because Kid 1 didn’t sleep well, and is going to be cranky.” Or, “I’m going to go out for an hour on the weekend on my own, because I know I’m going to need to refill my emotional tank in advance.”

(A quick word about meeting the needs of kids who are angry because their brother stole their favourite toy. First, you are the parent, and you can dole out the toys in your wisdom. Second, if the toy belongs to one particular child specifically, and they really don’t want to share, I don’t make them. However, I do distinguish between ‘private’ and ‘public’ space for toys. If a toy is out in public space, it means anyone can play (nicely) with it. If it absolutely must be kept private by the owner child, then it must only be played with in their particular ‘private’ space. Third, once a toy is in public space, a kitchen timer is your best friend. The second you see a potential disagreement coming, grab that timer, and the toy, and begin the ‘two minute process’. “You get two minutes with the toy. When the buzzer goes off,” and here you play the buzzer, so they recognise the sound, “your brother gets two minutes with the toy. Then you get two more minutes, and so on, until you’ve both had a good play with it.” I choose a two minute time slot, because it doesn’t feel like forever to a little person who is waiting. I also make them play with it in that room – they can’t take it out of sight – and I stay there to supervise the swap over, taking it out of little hands if necessary. If after five turns each they are still fighting, I’d take the toy out of circulation for a while.)

Reacting differently around meltdowns

As Rudyard Kipling said, ‘the challenge is to keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs.’ I was ‘fortunate’ to learn from the many years of meltdowns my darling son went through, that if I lost it, nothing good happened. In fact, the meltdowns lasted for longer. I learned to breathe, to slow down my reactions, to use my ipod to play calming music in my ears and quell the yelling, to speak more quietly and more calmly. I learned to stop talking, and use silent sitting, and gentle body language to help my son regulate himself. 

Often, as parents we panic when a child is crying. (Of course, I don’t advocate leaving a baby to cry for long periods, but sometimes, if all around you is chaos, they might have to be left for a couple of minutes. However, it’s more than likely they aren’t going to die.) The fact is, unless some medical crisis has just occurred (and you can usually recognise those screams) your child’s meltdown is not a true emergency and doesn’t have to whip you into a frenzy.

You can regulate your own feelings by being deliberate about them, by planning ahead and by practicing. Say to yourself: this is not an emergency. I will deal with this when I am able to. Our kids know how to get us to react, and if you begin to react differently, slowing down, getting quieter, speaking less, when they turn it on, they’ll see what we do, and begin to learn how to self-regulate as well. Recognise it when you’re panicking, and plan some steps to take like deep breathing, or giving yourself verbal instructions out loud, when you feel the frantic feelings arising.

Finally, self-talk is important.

It’s really, really easy to beat yourself up. “I lost it with the kids. The whole day is ruined. I’m a terrible mother. I’m going to scar my children. I’m not doing enough. I should never have had kids.”

Lies, all of them. Pull yourself out of the pit of condemnation.

Better, to correct yourself this way: “I wasn’t able to manage my feelings and my needs this time. We had a difficult half hour, but the rest of the day was alright. I’m a pretty good mother, but I regret that I yelled. My children will more than likely be okay, especially if I apologise to them. I am doing lots of good things. It’s a difficult job, and today was a hard day. Tomorrow is a new start, and there are always opportunities to practice self-regulation and meeting my needs. Plus, I like my kids. Especially when they’re asleep and looking angelic.”