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Bad child behaviour. It might be when you ask them, for the hundredth time that morning, to put their school shoes on. It might be when they pick up a bowl of Weetabix and throw it at the wall. It might be when they completely ignore you. Whatever kicks if off, every parent knows the feeling of not liking their child. It might last five minutes, it might last six weeks, but the feelings are the same. If someone was behaving this way towards you in any other walk of life, you wouldn’t want to spend time with them. Yet here you are, sharing a house, and just about every other facet of your life.
We have to add an essential note here: in the moments we don’t like our children, we still love them and would do anything for them. It’s just that when you do everything for someone and then they throw their breakfast at the wall, it can be hard to be the parent you want to be.
Koru Kids spoke to experts and parents about how to cope with the days when you’re more mad at than mad about your children.
Focus on Changing Your Immediate Mood
Parents we spoke to almost all put distance at the top of the list as their quick-fix answer to tough parenting moments. If you have a baby, it’s fine to put them in a cot in a safe room to give you some breathing space. If you have a toddler or school age child, you can leave them somewhere secure while you breathe deeply, call a friend for a rant, or post on your Facebook group that you’re really struggling. Keeping a note in your phone of times you have enjoyed together, lists of sweet things the children have done, or watching videos of them being funny are handy mood fixers.
Talking to an adult who listens and empathises can provide a crucial connection at stressful times, according to Kate Orson, Hand in Hand Parenting instructor and author of Tears Heal: How To Listen To Our Children.
“In that moment, separating yourself is the best thing to do. It’s certainly better than taking your anger out on your child. If you have a listening partner, you could call them for a quick five-minute chat to let them know what’s going on,” she says. “You know that deep down you love them, so you want to explore why in the moment you don’t feel you like them…and if you have a good rant, sometimes those feelings might disappear.”
Hiding in the loo is a favourite tactic, though anyone with a three-year-old knows they have zero respect for boundaries and will often burst in to spray sun lotion on your legs. Another solution could be to get on with chores. “Assuming the children are safe, I try and do something productive,” says Sarah, a London-based mum to a toddler and a newborn. “It gives me something to focus on and makes me think OK, today might be shit, but I have managed to do a household chore.”
When you’re taking time out, try to reframe the situation. Some parents have mantras they repeat in moments of stress about how they want their children to feel loved and protected. “It flicks my thinking from ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ to ‘How can I support my toddler through whatever is causing her to behave like this?’” says Catherine, mother to a three-year old and an eleven-month old in Southeast London.
It’s important to recognise the difference between a child misbehaving and you getting angry because of factors out of the child’s control. Run through what’s stressing you out and take note of whether it’s actually connected to the child, or to your own fears and concerns.
“The reason people feel they don’t like their children is that the children are reflecting their own limitations and inadequacies,” says Mike Fisher, founder of the British Association of Anger Management and author of Beating Anger. “As parents we often forget about tolerance and the importance of tolerance…we should constantly be reminding ourselves how different our children are from us.”
Try a change of scene
Many parents told us that the garden is a secret weapon in diffusing tension between them and their children. If the children are the right age, they can play while you read or listen to a podcast to reset yourself (on this point, the Unruffled parenting podcast by Janet Lansbury gets good reviews).
For toddler parents, try going for a walk. “Shoes and coats go on and we go into the garden and then for a wander around the neighbourhood. I let my toddler decide which way we go until we end up back at the house. I have of course been asked if I am lost when we have been doing this,” says Sian, Macclesfield-based mum to a three-year old and a one-year old.
The car is a refuge for many frazzled parents, though perhaps less so in London, because no one ever went on the North Circular to chill out.
Exercise is a popular release after a tough day, with a wide range in what works for different parents. While some need the calm of a gentle yoga workout as a counterpoint to the noise and chaos of parenting, others need high impact intensity-style cardio that works off the frustration.
Personally, I usually run faster and harder and listen to much louder music for the first ten minutes of a bad parenting day run than usual (Escape Artists Never Die by Funeral For A Friend is my hot tip). If you can’t get out of the house, loud music can work magic. If you follow @ultimategirlgang on Instagram you will know the power of pop when parenting four very small children; she runs clubbing afternoons in her kitchen to rival an all-nighter at a super-club.
Talk to your child about your feelings
Don’t try to mask your frustration and be honest if their behaviour has irritated you, but frame your comments in a kind and loving way, Orson says, stressing the importance of non-verbal communication for children. “It’s OK to set a limit…to say please don’t do it, but do it with warmth and kindness in your voice.”
She recommends laughter and play as key tools for cooling a situation down, especially when dealing with toddler tantrums.
“Remember that in moments like that, (for example if a child won’t put their shoes on), the language parts of their brain aren’t working as well, so rationalising and reasoning isn’t going to work, for example, telling them that you’re going to miss the bus if they don’t put their shoes on. In that situation, laughter and play can work really well, so you might put the shoes on a teddy, or put yourself in the less powerful role where you pretend you don’t know how to do something.”
Fisher says that it’s essential to start using “I feel…” to children as early as possible, with a focus on the behaviour rather than the individual, for instance by saying “I feel hurt or sad or angry, and this is why, and maybe together we can find a new way of dealing with this problem.”
Children don’t act out because they want attention, but instead because they want a feeling of connection with their parents, he says.
Apologise for your anger, and get it into context
In a Huffington Post interview discussing her book How To Stop Losing Your Shit With Your Kids, author and social worker Carla Naumberg said “I actually think it’s important for kids to learn that you can get angry with someone and that you can express that anger, and you can still have a healthy, loving relationship. What I want parents to know is that it doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad parent.”
As parents, it’s important that we focus as much on our own inappropriate behaviour as on behaviour from our children, according to Fisher.
“One thing I have had to learn is when my behaviour is inappropriate, and when it is, I apologise immediately and take it back. What I am doing there is monitoring my own empathetic radar,” he says.
Apologise to them in a way they understand, and make sure that you explain being angry in the moment doesn’t mean you don’t love them, or that there’s a permanent problem.
“Always apologise and make it clear it wasn’t their fault,” says Orson. “Make it about your feelings. What’s more, you apologising makes for a really good model for children, and makes it more likely they’ll see the value of apologising themselves.”.
So, just as you try to show your children the importance of positive feelings, it’s also valuable to teach them the power of expressing frustration in the right ways and apologising if you have been at fault. And remember, even in moments where you feel you aren’t the parent you planned to be, it’s not only you: it’s all of us.