You pack up the kids for the beach because the sun is finally shining. You miraculously find parking that only necessitates a three-block walk, which you manage with all requisite gear in tow, and arrive to feel the warm sand underneath your toes. At that very moment, your baby’s diaper blows out drips down your leg as your older child starts complaining about how their bathing suit is too scratchy and the sand is hot.
Summer can be a time of great fun, but it can also bring out the whiny side of overheated kids and the diminished tolerance of grown-ups. Here are eight tips for preempting drama and managing yourself when patience wears thin:
- Prepare. A well-stocked backpack can head off a multitude of problems. I have been the mom trying to handle an explosive diaper situation with a mere two wipes. It’s not fun. Restock your backpack at the end of the day so you aren’t left hanging next time you go out.
- Pre-teach skills. You can head off disaster with calm reminders of expectations—and even practice them—before you are in the thick of it. This might look like a review of what the beach or playground will be like and prompts about the level of manners that your outing will require.
- Tune in. Raising your EQ (emotional intelligence) is contagious. When you pause and tune in to your own emotional state first (perhaps one deep breath and a quick body scan), you can better assess where your child is and what they might need from you.
- Talk less and listen more. When someone is upset, their ability to process language is diminished.Keep this in mind while interacting with your children.It might feel unnatural to be quiet, and it can be hard to not ask questions (or problem-solve!), but sometimes not saying anything is the way to go. Bring your physical presence and full attention without a word and see what happens next.
- Get curious. When your child “flips their lid” and tempers flare, wonder to yourself (silently, per #4) what could be driving the emotions and subsequent behavior. It’s a compassion-builder to consider that there is likely something underneath the feelings. You don’t necessarily need to figure out, but stepping back and considering that there is likely a reason—Overwhelmed? Hangry?—can help.
- Use comedy. Amy Poehler brilliantly compared parenting to doing improv in her memoir. The general instruction is to say “yes,” but also always say “yes, and…” to keep things in the flow. As in, “Yes you can run down this street, AND you must hold my hand.” It can also be fruitful to bring actual humor to your parenting—silly characters, exaggerated voices, and the clueless parent routine are good ones.
- Explore options. Have you ever heard the saying about children, When they are cranky, put them in water? It’s extremely good advice. But aim to discover what works for your children. Some need a little space while others need a physical outlet for their emotional energy. Experiment and find out what work best.
- Tune out. I’m talking about a media diet here, people. Our brains were simply not meant to process as much information as we have access to, so scaling back is a good idea. Check out the app limit function on your smartphone, alarms, or even just sticky notes to remind you to take a break from the input.
You may have noticed that some of these suggestions are aimed at helping children regulate their emotions, but that many are aimed at adult self-regulation. Because of the way the brain develops, self-regulation skills must be learned through co-regulation with a grown-up. That means that if we want our kids to be able to stay regulated when they are upset and angry, we have to go first and be a good model. We do this not only when we succeed at keeping our tempers in check, but also when we lose our cool and then apologize, make amends, repair the relationship, and speak kindly to ourselves about our mistakes.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Parent & Family.
Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and the 2021 release, Raising Humans With Heart. Her writing has also been featured in The Huffington Post. Sarah is a human development nerd who brings over 30 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Reach out for parenting support via her “Get In Touch” page.