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Losing Your Cool

I’m no stranger to fighting siblings. With four kids under 8 years old, I often find myself playing referee more than mother.

It’s a good thing I look great in stripes.

I’m a firm believer in letting kids work out their own issues, which can be terribly challenging when all you’re hearing from sunup to sundown is constant bickering back and forth, interrupted only by the brave child who decides to tattle.

“Go work it out!” I tell them, shoving them back into the fray.

And usually, they do. Most often, the bickering turns into laughter. The swats turn into hugs—or high-fives.

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And I pat myself on the back for remaining calm—at least on the outside anyway—because otherwise I’d go crazy trying to intervene each and every time a fight erupts.

But last week, something different happened.

On the way to school, my oldest daughter discovered that my son had drawn on her fashion designs, and she started yelling at him. So I reminded her that she needed to put away anything of value. And I told him that he needed to look more carefully at what he deemed as “scrap paper” and return her drawing, with an apology.

Instead, he ripped her drawing right in half and tossed it at her face. She screeched in horror.

So did I.

I immediately pulled the car over, unable to control my own emotions, so angry at him and so incredibly hurt for her. I wanted to tear up all of his drawings to show him what he had done—and to somehow also force empathy upon him, because while my children fight often, they are never spiteful or mean to each other.

For the first time in a very long time, I had absolutely no idea what to do. And that was made perfectly clear by my reaction, a combination of harsh words spoken at high decibel levels and various privileges revoked, without explanation or context.

After I cooled off and put my brain back into my skull, I realized that I could have just made him tape the picture back together and apologize. I could have made him organize our arts and crafts area so that it would be clearer which papers were scraps and which were treasured artifacts.

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And, as I discovered the next day when he woke up ill, I should have noticed that he had been acting strange the entire day, and that his behavior was less about being angry and spiteful, and perhaps more about not feeling well. Certainly not a complete rationalization for his actions, but enough for me to take a bigger breath before spewing lava like Mount St. Helens.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned in my parenting years, it’s that a child’s behavior needs to be put into context before I react. This is not an easy task, however, when you’re maxed out on work and life and the three other children you’re tending to.

But kids aren’t as mysterious as we might think. On the contrary, they’re pretty transparent, unlike adults who have spent years cultivating defense mechanisms.

And when you add in developing language skills that can’t often verbalize “I’m feeling really scared right now” or “This situation makes me anxious,” you can end up with inappropriate behaviors instead.

When my son needs to go to the bathroom, he actually gets sassy. Before I do the whole “Don’t you talk back to me, young man” speech, I make him use the restroom. Surprise, he’s back to his old self again after a quick potty break.

And when he’s getting sick, he can be extremely difficult and defiant, which is hard to predict until I see the physical symptoms and slap myself on the forehead for not knowing. If I slow down and look closely, I can see the cold coming from a mile away.

If ever the “hindsight is 20/20” phrase could be applied, it’s certainly with parenting, where so many times I’ve flipped my lid only to look back a few minutes—even a few seconds—later to see what I could have done differently.

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Sometimes kids are just acting out because it’s their job. It’s part of growing up. And nothing you could have seen or done would have changed that. And so their bottom simply warms the time-out chair until the next time it happens.

But other times, their behavior has a legitimate reason, one that can be met with wisdom and compassion. It's when a simple “Tell me what’s really bothering you” can make the difference between a warm nap and chicken noodle soup or a ripped-up drawing and a screaming match. In both cases a lesson is learned, but one offers a solution that’s a little easier on the stomach. And the heart.

Theirs and mine.

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