By Hannah Kirk
Photo by London Scout
Screaming. Blaming. Arguing. Criticizing. These are my triggers. When my spirited, intelligent, and relentless 8 year old daughter starts to sniffle and hyperventilate, I brace myself for an emotional outburst that is sure to rattle me to my core.
Though every parent struggles with managing their response to a child’s tantrum, it’s particularly hard for me. My daughter’s emotional episodes resemble trauma I’ve experienced in a previous relationship. When her emotions escalate, my body goes into a fullbown threat response.
I know my job is to comfort her and create a safe space for her big, difficult feelings. But as a single mother with PTSD, that is not my natural response. I want to give her a face that says, “don’t you dare get more upset.” Or yell at her to calm down. Or hide in my room with a locked door until the storm passes.
But of course, these responses only make the situation worse. My daughter has beautifully articulated to me that she wants me to hug her and validate her emotions when she’s hurting.
I’d like to share with you a few strategies my daughter and I have developed that help us both to feel safe when she’s experiencing difficult emotions. Though I still get triggered by her tantrums, these tools have helped ease some of the pain for both of us.
Create and maintain routines.
HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. When anyone in my family is suffering from any of these four things, we’re more inclined to let our emotions get the best of us. I make sure that my kids and I eat and sleep on a regular schedule. Sometimes people will look at me funny for putting my child to bed at 6:30 and saying that I can’t go out after 6 with my kids. But my commitment to routine supports the emotional wellbeing of everyone in our family.
Develop emotional skills and language.
For a period of time when my daughter’s outbursts were especially acute, we set aside time each week for her to learn about her emotions and develop skills for managing them. This free anxiety workbook for children aged 5-11 has helped my daughter and I to identify her emotions and triggers, notice when they are escalating, and develop a “Calm Down Plan”. We now have specific and shared language to use when her emotions start to escalate.
Notice emotional cues.
Staying attuned to my child’s emotions helps us both to notice when she’s feeling sad, lonely, upset or irritable. When we can catch these difficult feelings as they arise, I can provide her the comfort she needs before her emotions escalate and I get triggered.
Soothe yourself when you get triggered.
When I do get triggered in front of my daughter, I need to calm myself down before I can provide her with the comfort she needs. For me, this is taking a five minute break. Though it’s difficult for my daughter to be separated from me in these situations, I’ve earned her trust by setting a timer and faithfully returning after five minutes. She’s learned that when I take a short break, I’m able to better comfort her. This strategy gives me a chance to cool down and allows my daughter to see me taking care of myself.
Don’t beat yourself up.
Part of my preparation for these emotional episodes is acknowledging that I don’t always respond to my child’s emotions the way I would like to. I am juggling a whole heck of a lot, and I am only human. I try to take extra good care of myself on days when her emotional outbursts get the best of me. Once I’ve had a chance to calm down, I analyze what I did well, what cues I missed, and how I can respond better next time.
Apologize when you don’t get it right.
Once the emotional storm has passed, my daughter and I debrief what happened. What worked well? What didn’t? I make sure to apologize if I raise my voice, respond with frustration or fail to acknowledge her feelings. I’ll explain my experience and give her a chance to explain hers. It’s ok for my daughter to know that I have trouble being calm when she’s upset.
We have a yelling jar in our house. When I raise my voice, I put money in the jar. We use the money to buy ice cream together as a family. This practice empowers my children to recognize my weaknesses in a situation where they may otherwise feel helpless and scared. And the ice cream is nice, too!
Hannah Kirk is a divorced mom of 2 young kids trying to cope with the challenges of single parenting and Silicon Valley while still staying sane. She chronicles her struggles, victories, and random life experiences on her blog.