The other day, my 11-year-old was badgering his 5-year-old brother. First, he began calling him “tartar sauce” (a family nickname; don’t ask); then he sat on his head; then he pulled his pants down. They began to brawl. I was trying to finish an e-mail. The AC was roaring. I was hot, annoyed, and tired. I shrieked at the 11-year-old to go to his room. I banished the smaller one to a far-flung iPad. And then I felt like an ogre, especially since they’re generally good kids who get along.
Newton’s Carla Naumburg is the author of the aptly named and very popular “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Calmer, Happier Parent.” She’s also the mom of tweens and a clinical social worker. Her latest book, “You Are Not a Sh*tty Parent: How to Practice Self-Compassion and Give Yourself a Break,” comes out in October.
“I think sometimes the parenting conversation gets so focused on expert advice that it can leave parents feeling like there’s a right or even perfect way to parent, and if parents aren’t parenting perfectly — whatever that means in each of our own lives — it’s because we have not yet found the right advice or followed the right advice,” she says.
On a 100-degree day during a summer of simmering COVID, monkeypox, and so much more, I figured we’d have a little chat about, ahem, those high standards.
Are parents that hard on themselves, still? This is a pandemic. It’s a bajillion degrees out. Do you think parents are really poring over different experts and beating themselves up? Does this angst exist in the day-to-day lives of most people? Because I sense a dissonance. In the media, it’s: “Parents are so stressed.” But who’s really following all this advice down to the letter?
Here’s what I think is happening. I honestly don’t know how many parents are legitimately reading parenting books and trying to follow the advice. What I do know is they’re seeing the headlines. They’re seeing social media posts that still perpetuate this idea of: “There is a right way to parent. There’s work I should be doing to parent better.”
I think that creates a painful dissonance, because we’re all fried and exhausted, and so we’re not doing the work. It’s summer, it’s hot, I’m tired, I’m stressed, COVID, blah, blah, blah. But in the back of our minds, or every time we pick up our phones and start scrolling, there’s that painful reminder: “Oh, I could be doing this so much better.”
Are my kids behaving well? Are they succeeding? Are they cheating? Are they matching what their peers are doing? Are they cooperating with me? Are my kids happy? Oof. That’s a big one. And, also, our sense of ourselves as a parent: How are we feeling? Are we feeling happy, fulfilled, and excited about parenting? Are we showing up for our kids, taking them on outings, and doing all these things that we somehow imagine a quote-unquote good parent does? [There’s] a constant influx of headlines that make me cringe: “Top four things experts say you need to do to raise a resilient kid!”
We see these headlines, maybe we scan the article, and then in the meanwhile our kid is throwing a tantrum or lost their brand-new bathing suit at summer camp. It’s impossible to feel like you’re not losing your mind.
We all have those moments as a parent where we lose it. Then we probably feel bad. Is it about not having that moment at all? Or is it about reconciling it later and chalking it up to normal parenthood? I can’t imagine my mom in 1989 saying: “Oh, no, I yelled at my child!” It would be: “Tough.”
You said something really important offhand that parents don’t keep in mind enough: My mom in the 1980s would not have had angst. One hundred percent. My dad would leave us sitting in the car for an hour. Our parents yelled at us all the time. My dad spanked me, not because he was a hateful, violent man. That was the tool that was available to him.
Parenting has changed in many ways. . . . I would argue that, for the first time in human history, parents are seeing their relationship with their children as a really important thing that they need to work on, that really matters. I’m not saying that previous generations didn’t care about their relationships with their kids or weren’t loving parents. But, for the first time, what we’re hearing from the popular media, from the parenting experts, from the doctors, is: It’s not just about keeping your child alive long enough so they can carry on your genes and run the family farm.
We’re supposed to be worried about: Are they going to be able to find a life partner, sustain a relationship, raise healthy kids, and be productive and responsible? I think the reason parents are worried about yelling now is because, in addition to all the other pressures and stressors ... we have this added pressure: You need to have a good relationship with your kid or you’re screwing them up for life.
So every interaction is that much more fraught. Here’s a scenario: Your children are fighting. It’s a million degrees. You’re not done with work. Your kids should be in camp but they’re not. You’re about to snap. What do you do?
So, the first thing to do is actually notice that you’re about to lose your sh*t. If a parent even notices that, they’re ahead of the game. So often, we go from stress-stress-stress to explosion, and we aren’t aware that there was any middle space where we could actually notice that we’re about to lose it. All of a sudden, we’re just yelling.
The first thing I recommend to parents is: Get to know your own health. Get to know the little red flags that signal you’re about to lose it.
The second step is just to pause for a minute. Stop what you’re doing. Take a breath if you need to. Put a pin in it. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to come back to whatever’s going on. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to finish it. Just take a moment. Take a breath.
The techniques that the mindfulness world likes (I can’t take credit for this, it’s sort of out there in the world): STOP. S is for stop. T is for take a breath. When you breathe, it’s like sending a text message directly to your nervous system saying: “There is no physical threat here. You can handle this.” O is for observe. This is assuming that nobody’s about to set the house on fire. Nobody’s about to fall down a flight of stairs. Observe what’s going on with yourself first. What are you literally doing in that moment? Are your fists clenched? Are you staring at a really awful e-mail from your boss? What are you thinking about? Just observe it; you don’t have to judge it. The P is for proceed. Once you’ve stopped and taken a breath, and observed yourself from that place where you’re a little bit calmer, then you proceed to do whatever’s next.
I don’t love very specific advice because I feel like it varies so much for different people. My advice is just do literally anything else besides yell at your kids.
For some people, they need to get that energy out. If I really feel a need to yell, I will blurt out some ridiculous sound. Sometimes I cluck like a chicken. My 12- and 13-year-old think this is insane and absolutely judge me for it, and that’s fine. But I have to get that tension out, and I want to do it in a way that doesn’t feel scary and overwhelming for the kids. And it adds a moment of humor or levity, or at least breaks up this interaction.
Do something physical, if you need to. That might be jumping jacks. Walk up and down stairs. It really depends on how old your kids are and what they’re doing. If you can leave them, walk around the block. If you have younger kids, and all you can do is jump up and down for a minute because you need to stay near them, do that.
Other people need to do something to calm down. If you have a prayer or a mantra, or even song lyrics that are meaningful to you, start repeating those. What that’s going to do is focus and tame your thoughts a little bit. My guess is that, in the moment, your thoughts are some version of: “I’m a sh*tty parent, my kids are so awful, and I can’t wait to get away from them.”
Something that’s going to corral your thinking a little bit is really useful. Can you drink a big glass of water? Can you stand right in front of the fan? Can you splash cold water on your face? Can you take your kids outside and hose everyone down? Whatever it is, in that moment, break up the tension for yourself. Once you’re calmer, your thoughts will be clearer. You’ll be less reactive and in a better space to figure out what’s going on.
How do we avoid this situation in the first place? Can we?
I would argue — and I challenge parents often to notice this — that we’re most likely to lose it with our kids when we are trying to do something else in addition to interacting with our children, whether it’s cooking dinner, or checking a work e-mail, scrolling through the news on our phone, or managing another child. There are moments when maybe your child is being truly obnoxious. Or maybe what they’re asking for is relatively benign! But, either way, it’s like they’ve opened one more tab on your brain’s computer, and that’s the tab that freezes everything up and sends smoke coming out of the back.
Either ignore your kids or be present with them. I’m not talking about hostile ignoring, like being in the same room and refusing to interact. Let’s say you’re a parent at home for the summer with your kids. You need to figure out: What are your limitations? On a day when you have to get work done or do things around the house, can you set your kids up with some sort of activity, game, or show that they can do while you get your stuff done, and then reconnect?
There are times when you let your kids have more screen time than you’re comfortable with. That’s OK. Because sometimes that’s the best we can do instead of losing our sh*t. If you can have them spend 30 or 40 minutes on the screen, and then connect with them, that’s inevitably going to go better than if you sit down at the kitchen table and your laptop is open and you’re trying to work them through a craft. You’re going to end up screaming at them. You just are.
Why the editorial choice of sh*t? I mean, I love it because that’s how we all talk, but: Why?
I did it very intentionally, partially because I wanted to show up as a real person for readers, and partially because I wanted readers to know that this wasn’t a book that was going to judge them. … Parenting is the hardest thing that most of us will ever do, and we don’t have to be perfect parents to be great parents. We can screw up immensely, over and over again, and still be great parents.
Interview was edited and condensed.