Have You Lost it with Your Kids Lately?

If you find yourself flying off the handle, here's how to stop overreacting and start taking control of your emotions

Reprinted from Kids Have Feelings, Too, by H. Norman Wright and Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D. Copyright (C) 1993 H. Norman Wright and Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D. Used with per­mission of Victor Books, a division of Scripture Press Publications, Inc., Wheaton, IL 60187.

Do any of the following statements sound famil­iar to you?

* "How many times have I told you not to interrupt me when I'm on the phone?"

* "You're in real trouble now. Just wait until your dad gets home!"

* "If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times. Don't take things out of this drawer without asking!"

* "I'm sick and tired of you leaving a mess around the house. You make this place look like a pig sty! If you don't clean it up, you're really going to get it!"

If you're a parent, you've probably experienced the frus­tration these comments reflect. While our children can be our greatest source of joy, they also canbe our greatest source of pain, frustration, and feelings of fail­ure. At times, it seems as though our children are the problem—but in reality, it's not so much them as the emotions they bring out in us.

That's why one of the most challenging aspects of parenting is to learn that there's an enor­mous difference between reacting and responding to our children. When we respond to a situation that causes us frustration or anger, we're more apt to say or do things that contribute to a solution. But when we react with explosive anger, sarcasm, or escalating threats, we undermine the very lessons about emo­tions we want to model for our children—and end up feeling guilty, discouraged, and defeated.

Parents who haven't learned how to deal with their emo­tions also are at increased risk of becoming verbally—and even physically—abusive. They don't start out that way, but over a period of several years, they numb that inner voice of warning only to awaken to the reality of being out-of-control.

Keeping your calm

As counselors, we've talked to hundreds of parents who love their children and want God's best for them, but struggle with a low level of frustration. One such parent was Karen, a com­mitted Christian woman who was happily married and the mother of two. Her greatest desire was to be a great mom, but Karen was short-tempered with her kids. When she became frustrated, Karen would become sarcastic and make threats. Initially, her kids responded, but she rarely followed through on her threats, and it didn't take long for her children to learn they didn't have to worry about what Mom said.

Because they didn't take her anger seriously. Karen found herself gradually increasing the volume of her voice. She also had to raise the seriousness of the consequences to get a response.

"Can I really change the way respond to my children?" Count­less parents have asked us that question over the years. Fortu­nately, the answer is yes. Here are six steps to help you begin.

Own up to your problem.

The first—and most important —element of change is to acknow­ledge to yourself, God, then to one or two others that you have trouble disciplining your kids without overreacting. When you acknowledge the problem before God, you're admitting it's some­thing you can't handle alone. Look up Bible promises such as Romans 8:28, Philippians 4:13 and 4:19. You'll be surprised how encouraging and energizing it is to look at your concerns in light of who God is and what He promises to His children.

After you acknowledge there is a problem, accept responsi­bility for it. One of the first things Adam and Eve did after eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was to place the responsibi­lity for their actions on someone else. Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed Eve, then he blamed God for making her. Since, then, our fallen nature looks for someone else to blame.

In one of my conversations with Karen, she said, "If Jordan would just pick up after himself, I wouldn't get so angry." In some ways, that's true. But when Karen said that, she was placing responsibility for her emotions on her seven-year-old son.

Identify the triggers.

Most children say or do things that anger their parents. But some behaviors particularly seem to kick off over reactions in parents with a short fuse. Here are some of the most common:

* Whining or complaining

* Talking, yelling, or inter­rupting when you're on the phone

* Not doing something they said they'd do

* Fighting Name-calling

* Borrowing things without asking

* Not putting things away after they've borrowed them

* Tardiness

* Talking back or showing disrespect

The easiest way to identify your "triggers" is to make a list of the behaviors that cause you to lose your temper with your kids. Karen listed Jordan's whining, complaining, and talking back as the actions that triggered her blow-outs with her son.

Figure out what makes you vulnerable.

Karen began to see it wasn't just Jordan's behavior that trig­gered her anger. There were other factors in her life that made her more vulnerable to respond to Jordan with screaming, threats, and sarcasm. The easier way to determine these factors is to recall three or four of the most recent times you've blown it with your kids. Then ask yourself the following questions about the preceding 24 to 48 hours:

* Were you busier than usual?

* Did any crises take place?

* Did you have less sleep or exercise than usual?

* Did you lose it at a certain time of the day or week or month?

I've worked with mothers who discovered they're more apt to lose their temper in the middle of the week when they feel over­whelmed; others identify the weekend as their most vulnerable time. Many parents find they're at their greatest risk during the hours before the evening meal or right before bedtime. What is your danger zone?

Analyze your past response.

Several years ago, I heard someone say, "It's crazy to find out what doesn't work, then keep doing it." My first response was to laugh—but behind my laughter was the realization that there was some craziness in my life. Some of my approaches toward conflict and communication with my wife and kids weren't working, but I still hadn't changed them.

Many parents suffer from this kind of craziness. We've spent years perfecting responses, that ultimately are ineffective. Karen's yelling, threatening, over general­izing, labeling, and being sarcastic never produced any positive change in her kids—yet those behaviors comprised 90 percent of her responses to Jordan.

Yet once we're aware of our patterns, we can discover new ways to deal with old problems. What haven't you tried yet? What have other parents tried that seems to work? What kinds of responses are more consistent with what you want to model for your children?

Karen read several books on parenting and talked with some of her friends as well as her children's school teachers. She was able to develop a two-page list of suggestions. She prayed about them, prioritized them, and prepared to put them into action.

Develop a realistic plan.

One part of Karen's plan was to develop more realistic expec­tations. For years, she'd worked on being the perfect mother, but that pursuit of perfection only led to increased pressure and unrealistic expectations. Karen committed to exchange her pur­suit of perfection to one of growth. Karen also decided to clarify realistic expectations for her children, taking into account their personality- or age-related differences.

But one of the most important goals Karen set was to retrain herself to pause before losing it with Jordan. According to Proverbs, the person who is "slow to anger has great understanding" (14:29, RSV), "and is better than the mighty" (16:32). It is also "to his glory to overlook an offense" (19:11). Karen decided to take a brief time-out before she reacted. This time-out gave her the chance to ponder and pray about her responses.

Karen also discovered that when she was in the middle of apotentially explosive situation —when she allowed her emo­tions to blur her ability to think clearly—she invariably slipped back into her old patterns. So she decided that the best time to deal with a problem was before it became a problem. Karen brainstormed new approaches to frustrating situations, narrowed them down to three, then put each one on a 3 x 5-inch card. Every morning, as part of her prayer time, she asked God for His strength to help her get out of her behavioral rut. Her husband helped her role play some problem situations so she had an oppor­tunity to hear herself respond to new ways.

Assess your results and set new goals.

When you do, look for the small signs of growth—a de­crease in the frequency of blow-ups, a decrease in their intensity, and /or a decrease in their duration. Keep in mind that you'll rarely, if ever, see changes in all three of these areas at the same time.

Karen's plan was simple, prac­tical, and measurable. Her plan went beyond good intentions to specifics. The best news of all is that, over a four-month period, Karen's plan worked. She learned how to control her emotional reactions to her kids and become a more effective mother.

Many people want to change —but few want to go through the process for change. That process can be frustrating and discouraging, and involves failure. But don't give up! Over time, with God's help and a clear commitment on your part, you can change into the mom you want to be.

Reprinted from Kids Have Feelings, Too, by H. Norman Wright and Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D. Copyright (C) 1993 H. Norman Wright and Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D. Used with per­mission of Victor Books, a division of Scripture Press Publications, Inc., Wheaton, IL 60187.