“If you guys give me any more crap today, I’ll take you to the RSPCA –and leave you there!” I yelled at my son and his mates after a recent “no-sleep over” which had deteriorated into a mid morning farting competition in the living room. Thankfully, they are all old enough to know I couldn’t be serious, even though I was feeling seriously stressed. Instead, it seemed I had unwittingly created a diversion as their conversation turned to cleaning kennels and abandoned animals.

Why is it, I wondered as I took some deep slow breaths, that just when we feel pushed to the absolute limit, our kids seem to be deliberately out to ‘get us’? As they catapult us directly into our ‘out of control’ zone, we react in ways that are irrational and way out of proportion to the event. We open our mouths to teach our kids a lesson and out comes – our mother! Not only are we the parent we don’t want to be, we have turned into the parent we swore we would never become.

This ‘road rage’ of parenting can happen to the best of us. And just as road rage isn’t usually about the road, our reactions when our kids wind us up are often about something much deeper than simple annoyance or concern for their well-being (as we may justify). In fact, it’s more likely to be about our needs (for order and control) than theirs (for understanding and connection).

When we react to our kids behaviour and snap, or say things we regret, we go on ‘automatic’. Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’ refers to automatics as ‘emotional hijacking’, describing our normally rational mind as being swamped by emotions. Automatics are our attempt to control our child’s behaviour in order for us to feel better and for them to react differently.

Yet, when we allow our kids to wind us up, our attempts to control the situation become futile – we lose authority, break connection and both of us usually end up feeling angry, defensive, frightened and inadequate, so nothing productive can be learned.

The complaint, “if only my child would change (clean her room, stop dawdling in the morning, get out of the shower before all the hot water is used, stop leaving homework until the last minute, or whatever else drives you crazy), my life wouldn’t be so difficult,” is all too familiar to Melbourne psychologist Betty Chetcuti.

According to Chetcuti, who offers counselling and workshops for stressed mothers (http://www.beingamother.com/), it is more productive to change our own attitudes, and examining our expectations is a good place to begin. Instead of thinking ‘all good kids should clean their rooms,’ for instance, we can ask, what else is happening for this child? Or, if a toddler spills a drink, perhaps it is because the glass is too full or he is tired.

Even when the button pushing seems deliberate, it is important to ask, what is happening here? It may be an effort to connect with a busy or distracted parent, regardless of the reaction it will elicit, or it could be that a child is having difficulty expressing feelings.
If things do get to boiling point, try stepping back – literally. If your child has used bad language for instance, slowing down will enable you to consider a different approach. Sure-fire calming tips for when we reach our limits include taking deep abdominal breaths, or vigorous exercise such as jumping on the trampoline – with the kids! A long bushwalk with my son and his mates had the desired calming effects for all of us – we were too worn out to push each other’s buttons for the rest of the day.

Remember, its’ a normal biological reaction to yell if we feel threatened, and sometimes we can’t avoid yelling, but we can actively model stress management for our child and there is always value in thinking how could I have done things differently?

Know your buttons – become aware of what happens when you get wound up. What are you feeling? (rage? hopelessness? resentment?) What happens physically? Recognise these early warning signs that your buttons are being pushed. As soon as you feel yourself becoming wound up, take a deep breath and step back. You won’t be able to do anything effective if you explode.

Look behind the behaviour – remind yourself that your child is having a problem, not being a problem. Try to work out what is behind the behaviour, even if the button pushing seems deliberate.

Get real – are your expectations realistic for your child’s stage of development, current stress levels or individual personality? You don’t have to allow inconsiderate behaviour, but you may have to cut some slack at times, such as when your tot is tired or hungry, your five year old is adapting to school, or your teen is overloaded with study.

Examine your fears – are your toddler’s fussy eating patterns evoking visions of adolescent eating disorders? Does your child’s homework avoidance create concerns that he will be unable to accomplish anything and never get a good job?

Accept responsibility – it isn’t the child’s responsibility to turn the situation around. We can’t expect our child to act like a grown up and behave rationally and cooperatively if we are raging out of control! To stop the reactive cycle, the parent must be the first to stop reacting.

Accentuate the positive – it’s all too easy to slip into a downward negative spiral. Try to appreciate your child’s irritating characteristics by seeing how they will be appropriate when he is an adult – sensitivity, persistence and initiative will be valued when he’s six feet tall!

Nurture yourself – when your own stress levels are high, a child’s inconvenient behaviour (scattered toys, a spilt drink) can be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, so remember to take time out to be kind to yourself.