Thursday, November 14, 2013

Turning Into My Mother

Yesterday was the birthday of the younger foster kid. How did I celebrate? By yelling at him and making him cry.
   You see, he's a very picky eater, and we have a "2 bite" rule. But yesterday, he served himself about 3 bites worth of salad. We said that since he picked out how much he wanted, he had to eat it all. He threw a hissy. He asked literally 5 times since he ate 2 bites, was he done. Each time, me or my husband repeated "You put it on your plate, you need to eat it." Then he would pout. And sigh. And push food around on his plate and ask again.
   Finally I snapped. "We are done discussing this! You put it on your plate, and you will eat it. NOW!" I roared.  So he ate it. With tears rolling down his face. Because yelling scares him; it causes him to shut down. I knew that, just in the heat of the moment, I didn't remember.
   I apologised soon after, and things went back to normal, but I realised something. I had turned into my mother. My mom could go from irritated to enraged in 2 seconds flat. My mom was a yeller. My mom couldn't handle very much rambunctious behaviour, as she was constantly sleep-deprived and stressed.
   I realise I've been a parent for all of 3.5 weeks, so I haven't had a chance to evolve in my parenting very much. I also know that there are numerous books about dealing with kids at their level (and remembering they are people with feelings). The problem I keep running into, is in the heat of the moment, I escalate so fast, I don't even think about anybody else's feelings but mine.  
   This isn't just a problem that I've noticed since kids. I do this to my husband, my mom, and at prior jobs, too. I just don't know how to change it.

So if anyone has advice on how I can stop turning into the Hulk, and stepping on everyone else but me, please let me know. Because I hate how I'm acting, and hate what it's doing to my relationship with the kids.


  1. Been thinking all day about what advice to give you. (BTW, first time commenter here, hello!) Caveat: I am not a parent. I am, however, a preschool teacher with a masters in early childhood and elementary education, so I know a little something about children - but not everything, and I am always continuing to learn! One thing I have noticed recently is that things I teach my preschoolers can often apply to adults, too. Lots of adults have difficulty with regulating emotions and controlling one's own behavior, just like some of our kids do. I find it interesting to look at kids and think about how I can manage my own emotions and behavior based on what I'm trying to teach them.

    First of all, it's good that you're recognizing your emotions and your desire to change how you express them. Remember - it is OKAY to be angry or frustrated. What I hear is that you want to change how you react. If your emotions escalate quickly, it's probably a good idea to look for early warning signs. Once you can identify signs of losing your temper, you can try to check it. (Getting hot, fidgety, louder, etc.) This may take some practice. You might choose to look into techniques for calming yourself - if necessary, take yourself away from the situation until you've managed to rein in your emotions. Don't be afraid to explain to the kids what you are doing. "I'm very angry and I need to take a break before we talk about this more" is one possible way to say it. If that's not possible, you can try breathing exercises, closing your eyes and trying to "center" yourself, etc. You can ask your husband to help you look for warning signs, and even give you signals when he sees you about to lose your temper. (You can come up with signals that the kids won't understand if you want to.) Personally, I think it's good for children to see adults struggling with emotions and working to handle them in a healthy way.

    And one of the most important things I do at the preschool - PICK YOUR BATTLES! If you feel yourself getting really worked up, take a moment to think, "Is this really worth it?" Sometimes you'll decide that no, it's not, but you've already committed yourself. In some cases it's perfectly okay to change your mind. But if you've inadvertently set yourself in a battle of wills against the child where backing down will make them think they can manipulate you in the future, you may not have that option. For example, the perennial problem I deal with - "It's rest time and you should have chosen a book before the lights went out. Time to be on your cot, and no, you don't get a book." Then the child cries for half of rest time, disturbing the others. It would have been easier for me to let her grab one really quick, but now if I say she can, she'll think crying will get me to change my mind. It's a learning process and it's okay to make mistakes! Try not to be too hard on yourself - it takes a lot of practice and we are all in different stages of the journey. I've been teaching at this particular preschool for two years and I am still working on how to handle different situations! I hope some of my advice has been helpful, and hopefully not too presumptuous given that I am a first time commenter. I do like your blog and appreciate your insights, however!

    1. Hello and welcome! Thanks for your comments, and the time you took to write them. You gave me a lot to think about, but the thing I liked the most was the signal with my husband. I have talked with him about that, and our code word is "Sprinkles"! Thank you for the advice!

  2. OK, I've mentioned before that this is something I've really struggled with. I've had some really terrible moments (worse than what you've described) and I honestly wasn't sure it was even possible for me to change. But I've been working on it for some time and now it's actually fairly rare for me to lose my temper with my kids and when I do it's a lot more mild and hopefully I'll be able to continue improving with time.

    1. After each incident I would have a sit down with myself once I'd fully calmed down to analyze the scenario and determine how I should have handled things. I'd play the revised situation over and over again in my mind and even kept a notebook to record the new strategies. At first I'd only be able to come up with solutions after the fact but with enough repetition I started to remember in the heat of the moment as well.
    2. I worked on my exit strategy. I'd always set goals to take a time out before losing control but I never seemed to be able to do it. For one thing it didn't usually even occur to me until it was too late and for another thing I thought I should keep going right up to the brink of losing control before extricating myself which is a recipe for disaster. So I made a solid plan including what I would say, where I would go, and how I would calm myself down. I even made alternate plans for when I was away from home (kept a pair of headphones in the car so that I could listen to music on my phone. If the kids were with me I left them in the car and got out to listen to a song or two.). Each day I would remind myself of my plan and seek out as many opportunities as I could to implement it. Instead of waiting til the last minute I'd do it as soon as I felt the irritation mounting. It's nearly impossible to tear yourself away once your blood is boiling and the repetition helped to really ingrain the habit. Once the habit was firmly established then I gradually started raising the irritation threshold. This process helped me become a lot more self-aware of where my limits are and the warning signs that I need to pay attention to.
    3. The changes will come so gradually that sometimes it's hard to tell whether you're actually getting anywhere so I keep a calendar to help me keep track. Each night I score myself on my interactions and at the end of the month I tally up my points. There's usually not a ton of improvement from month to month but after a few months you'll probably note some obvious improvement. If I go a few months with no real improvement then that's a sign that I need to try something different.

    1. The calendar is a great idea. Because I want immediate results, and would get very discouraged seeing no progress from month to month. I also really like the idea of getting out of the car and calming down with a few songs. The kids are TERRIBLE in the car (that's why I have now put them on the school bus), and I usually lose my temper there.
      Quick question-do you give yourself rewards for good behaviour?

    2. For me external rewards don't add motivation. When I'm successful I like myself better and have better relationships with my family so I focus on that. My husband on the other hand also keeps a calendar and does need more tangible results. If he accumulates above a certain number of points each week then he gets a night to go out and play his ultra-nerdy D&D game with his buddies. If you think that incremental rewards would help you improve I'd go for it.

      Also, if mealtimes are often a power struggle I'd recommend revising your rules. My son is the world's pickiest eater so I decided he couldn't leave the table until he'd tried a bite of his food. This resulted in me forcing him to stay at the table for 6 solid hours until I finally snapped and tried to pry open his mouth and force the food in. MAJOR FAIL. Ultimately you can't force a kid to eat anything and if he decides to dig in his heels it will turn ugly every time.

      A child nutritionist referred me to a book by Ellyn Satter which maintained that the parent is in charge what foods are offered and when/where. The child is in charge of what (or whether) to eat and how much. At meals I make sure that there are always at least 3 healthy options (main dish and 2 sides) to choose from and let my son take it from there. I'll make minor modifications like leaving the sauce off his pasta but we don't do separate meals. These are the only foods he will be offered until the next meal or snack rolls around. I've found that he actually eats more when no one's pressuring him to do it and he's a lot more likely to be willing to try something new if we allow him to discreetly spit it into a napkin if he doesn't like it. Knowing he doesn't have to swallow it makes him more likely to take risks.

      Anyway, you're doing better than you think you are. Every parent learns by trial and error and it takes time to know what will and won't work with the kids you've got. I don't know if the advice I give will be what works for you but I do know that eventually you'll find something that does.

    3. Lol. My husband wishes he had a group for D&D.
      I'm a tangible rewards kind of person, so I think I will incorporate that.
      I think I will try letting him kind of police his own plate, just to see how that works. Thanks, as always, thanks for the tips.

  3. So I've done this anger thing, so I can't blame you. I've SO been here. I also don't know the full situation. If he's going hungry because he's picky, then you definitely have to make him eat. If not, the difference between two bites and three bites may not be worth the battle. You probably know this, but foster kids will try to do anything to control their environment as much as possible because of their past. I would expect many, many days of small ways of trying to control things. Don't let other parents compare their kids to yours. It's not the same. I know this because I've been there.

    Just in general, I would try to present things in a positive light as much as possible. Instead of presenting this as consequences, present them as learning to govern themselves. Things don't have to be, for example, "time out" for drawing on a table (I'm making this up), but rather, "I need you to stay with me until I know you make safe choices." And then use that time to love on them. Of course, if a child is throwing a fit, then time out is a way to cool down.

    My instinct is that rather than making a bit deal out of eating, you should instead back up and make a big deal of spending time together. Word it in the positive. "I can't have you go hungry. How about we count to three and eat a bit at the same time?" I dunno. I'm not there, and please understand, I know that any advice is a grain of salt with kids who aren't yours. I know because I've been there.

    Finally, YES, separate yourself when your angry or when you know it's boiling up. If your angry, then don't make him eat and leave the room. It's okay for you to your tools. Also, I've been there too.

    1. I like your rephrasing. I'm too blunt a lot of the time. "You're going to time-out because you're hitting your sister!" The kiddos would probably respond better to "1-2-3 bite!" than my normal tactic.
      Thanks for the support and advice!