Mom's best weapon in the tantrum wars

My son didn't want to get ready for preschool. He refused to put his clothes on and threatened to stay glued to the chair he was in. It wasn't a good moment to challenge his overly tired mommy, after I had spent many sleepless nights with his baby sister.

At that moment of frustration I couldn't think of anything else to do - I pulled him up from the chair and put his clothes on over his pajamas while he was crying, grabbing, and kicking.

Finally, we were on our way, but I felt ashamed for losing my self-control. During the next several days I carried around a sense of guilt and shame. Along with the physical exhaustion I felt, it was a very heavy load. I was sure the words "Bad Mommy" were emblazoned across my forehead.

That was a few years ago. Since then I've had many more opportunities to practice de-escalating the power struggles that sometimes occur between parents and children.

So, recently when my daughter's preschool classmate was holding onto the school door frame screaming, "No! I don't want to go. No, no, no," I could sympathize with her mother. She was trying to get hold of Sarah, who was screaming in her face.

As the mother peeled her daughter's clawing fingers from the doorway, Sarah reattached them to a chair. Other parents shuffled nervously, pretending to look elsewhere.

After Sarah and her mom made it to the car, and mom was trying to ignore the screaming-child-in-car-seat tantrum, I tried to make her feel a bit better, commenting lightly, "I've had banshees at my house, too. Do you think we could ship them to Timbuktu when they get like this?"

She smiled weakly. Then I told her about a time recently when my 4-year-old was screaming for a food item at the grocery store. I had to rush out holding onto her, while holding my head down in shame. I hope it helped to remind Sarah's mom that every parent experiences this sort of embarrassment at least once in a while.

After many botched attempts to try to claim a "perfect parent award," I've begun to adjust my attitude. Nowadays I don't consider perfection. Instead, I try to be aware and "in the moment" whenever one of the children turns into a bucking mustang. These are the things that have helped me:

• The first realization that came to me after that pajama-pants episode was that the "critical parent" inside me was getting in the way. I was critical of my child and even more critical of myself. What I need, during those moments of struggle, is a clear head without all the criticisms.

I have found that if I take a few deep breaths I am able to turn down the heat of anger and turn up the dial of patience.

• I remind myself that 3- and 4-year-old children don't want to be "bad" any more than their mommies want to be "bad." If it's hard for me to deal with frustration, how much harder is it for my daughter and son? My children haven't had much practice in learning how to cope with life's ups and downs. Understanding this, I can be more empathetic.

• Just as taking a deep breath helps me refocus, my children need help in redirecting their energy when things aren't going well. Sometimes simply moving to a related activity takes attention away from the power struggle. When my daughter says she doesn't want to go to school, I ask her if she's going to wear her red dress or those purple pants that everyone comments on. We go on to talk about the remarks she has heard about each outfit. Suddenly, the idea of not going to school is forgotten.

• My husband always brings humor into power-struggle situations. When the children seem on the edge of throwing a tantrum, he mimics them in a playful manner. "Wha-wha-wha. I want to go to school. Can I go for you?" It works for him.

Seeing Sarah's mother struggling over her daughter's tantrum reminded me that all parents need a little extra support when their kids are acting up.

I wish someone had been there to make both my son and me laugh about his wearing pajamas inside his pants for one day of preschool. Knowing that others sympathize feels much better than the heat of condemning eyes.

And maybe a kind word of understanding is all it takes to help another parent refocus, allowing him or her to turn up the patience dial.

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