Sunday, February 5, 2012

The "Yesterday" Hangover

Sometimes, life with kids is a treat. I think most parents will agree that some of our best moments are times we've spent with our children. When things are going well, when we fall into a positive groove of mutual give and take,there are few things which could be better.

That said, the opposite can feel true, too. Our hardest days with our children can make us feel terrible--about the moment and about ourselves. If we are truly being honest, we sometimes think or feel some pretty terrible thoughts and feelings about our kids too. And when you've had 'one of those days' where the children have suddenly become deaf to our directions (and then, to our rising frustration) and we eventually all lose our cool, it can  make the next day hard to look forward to. 

Welcome to what I call "The Yesterday Hangover". It's that nagging feeling that comes upon us when we get out of bed the next morning, that small silent non-denominational parental prayer of "Oh, heavens, please let today be nothing at all like yesterday." In this moment, we tell ourselves we are going to try to do things differently. We are not going to get emotionally engaged in whatever antics come our way. We will ignore their whining and crying and we will not lose our cool when they try to hit us or do other dangerous things. We will correct as positively as we can, put them in a safe place to cool down, and try to give them all the positive attention while they play as we can. We'll take a Time Out ourselves, if need be, and hope to model this positively. All this we promise ourselves before we've even had a cup of coffee.

Hopefully--hopefully, our kids are on the same page. Hopefully, we won't have to resort to some of the lame observations we remember our own parents making. "REMEMBER YESTERDAY? DO YOU WANT TO HAVE A REPEAT OF YESTERDAY? THEN YOU NEED TO BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH IF YOU WANT TO MAKE IT OUT OF TODAY ALIVE." Of course, this is highly inappropriate in any case, but it does make us pause and reflect for a moment that we, too, sometimes gave our own parents a run for their money. I know I did. 

Yesterday in our house was one of those days best left unremembered. After three days of more or less flying solo as a parent due to Joe working some long hours, I was spent and probably not on my own best behavior. But I really did try. Yet, somehow, this was not enough for Kiddo. Perhaps it was one of those 'testing' phases, perhaps it was just a long week, but the day eventually devolved into a bedtime with no stories or songs and plenty of tears and frustration. After closing the door to his room and sitting at the table with my evening cocktail of Advil and a beer, watching Joe eat his late dinner, I wondered aloud why it was so hard sometimes. 

And then I silently hoped that there would be no repeat performance the next day. 

Thankfully, despite a spate of tests again from Kiddo ("If I do X, will Mama's head fly off? Will she really just walk away? Oh, wait, why am I standing here alone?") I think we made it through the day fairly well. What helped was taking it one moment at a time, not superimposing the day before onto the present, but treating each individual conflict as their own, isolated incident. We managed to pull off a pretty good day overall, including a cribbage game for the grown-ups and dinner out at my favorite sushi restaurant in Portland. (Of course, dinner worked out well because I'd cut out a handful of paper valentines and brought stickers, but that's just me doing my parental job of bringing something to stay happily busy with while we waited for our food.) Saying goodnight was pleasant, stories were read and songs were sung. The Yesterday Hangover had not wrestled our day away from us. Instead, rational thought--instead of parental superstition and negative predictions-- had been allowed to reign supreme during our day.

All of this was so good. Especially as there is no "hair of the dog" treatment for the Yesterday Hangover. A glass of water and some aspirin won't help. Planning the low-key, low-expectations day is probably the best remedy, if it is possible. 

Some language to use when you know you are heading into another rough day--because it's all about how you say it:
Instead of "Go to your room right now! Are you trying to send me to an early grave?!" try "I see you don't want to follow directions right now. This would be a good time for you to go play (anywhere away from me)." Being 'sent' versus having the remedy to the problem strongly suggested are a world apart. The former is more reactionary, the latter more reasonable and it holds an explanation as well.

Instead of "What do you think I am? A waitress? Do you think this is a restaurant? DO YOU SEE A TIP JAR ON THE COUNTER?" or "Why don't you want to eat it? I made it especially for you because you loved it yesterday?" try "This is what we are having for dinner tonight." (And if they don't like it, put some bread and butter on their plate before serving... just to alleviate any sense of guilt you might suffer for your after-dinner 'starving' child.)

Instead of "if you do X again, I will explode like Vesuvius!" try "I need you to do X or you will need to take a break (wherever, however, I see fit)." 

...and a few more practical tips for the hard days:

1. When faced with an undesired task for the child, close the door to whichever room you need to work in. Many children are little runaways and will bolt out of the room to start a maddening game of chase which you did not ask to play. Closing the door and putting your body between door and child minimizes this.

2. Do the work before the fun. By the time a child is four, he knows when it 'works best for him' to do an undesired task and when he can dig his heels in and ignore the parents. I'm all for making the next desired activity contingent upon getting one's room picked up or one's clothes put away, etc. etc. The other night I was smart enough to leave Kiddo in his room to pick up his toys before dinner... and to tell him that he could come to the table only after his messes were cleaned up. This eliminated an after-dinner bedtime non-cooperative stalemate. Sometimes, dangling a carrot is a good idea.

3. Ignore the attitude as much as it makes sense to, then redirect it. On tough days, it seems like they're really trying to pick a fight with us. Weirdly, of course, it is likely because they want our attention--and we should give them attention, but not for this. In fact, on tough days, it may feel like we are doing nothing but giving them attention. Try to ignore those baits for negative attention and to focus on positive attention during neutral times, and then give genuine thanks for their good choices and those moments when they are doing something right. When the negative actions begin to annoy, see the above suggestion for going to one's room or playing elsewhere. 

4. Make sure you are all well-rested. Tell the kids you are going to take a quiet rest and that they  must play quietly for a certain amount of time. Then, model this. I use a timer, and when my Little Mister wants my attention, I just say one phrase- "When the timer goes ding..." and go back to my book or close my eyes. Granted, younger children might have a harder time with this, but everyone should be taking a quiet break during the day, even if they are not napping, because we Mamas need a break!

5. Go outside. Unless there's some seriously inclement weather, try to get outside for a walk. If you have a rascally handful of a younger kid, bring a stroller or some other containment device, just in case things melt down and you have to get an uncooperative child home. If your kids are digging their heels in, go sit on the porch alone or if they are old enough to be unattended, go work in the yard. Just getting out and breathing some fresh air will help.

6. Make a clear playtime with your child. Set aside a half-hour (use a timer) and ignore your phone, email, etc.---just focus on doing something pleasant and easy together. Note: hard days are not a day for focus-oriented projects; save those for easier days. Instead, get out the playdough or do something open-ended and creative and low-stakes. Avoid competitive games if you can; losing on a good day can be hard for little ones, losing on a bad day can become the End of the World.

7. Give kids separate spaces to play or work in. Families with multiple children will agree with this. If possible, give each child a separate room or even floor to exist in for a chunk of time. 

8. Stay as emotionally neutral as possible. This can be very difficult, but give it a try. When correcting a behavior, just state the facts and remedy the situation without a lot of talk. Yesterday, scissors were thrown because a Little Someone was frustrated. "I see that you are not being safe with the scissors. You are done with them for today. You may try them tomorrow." Chances are, this will not keep your child from crying and being angry. However, this can keep you from feeling guilty for yelling and exacerbating an already bad situation. Plus, when we are disciplining on a 'testing' day, it's hard for kids to try and take the wind out of our sails when there is no wind in there to begin with.

9. Correct misbehavior after the first warning. No procrastinating, no lazy parenting, no 'the next time I see you blah blah blah...". Just one warning and then, follow through with whatever correction is necessary. And any deliberate aggressive, hurtful or dangerous actions get an immediate correction, because a typical child will know by 3 years old that they are doing something wrong. (This is when I will use a 1-minute-per-year time-out in a chair and then checking in with the hurt person/making amends.) If it's hurtful words or a disrespectful attitude, it's okay for them to go into their room to play "until you are ready to be a friendly person again". If the nasty words are addressed to siblings, they can go to their room until they are ready to make things right with sister or brother and to check in with them. Don't wait for things to escalate or for them to test you and see if you will 'really' follow through with the correction. Just do it.

10. Lastly--Let go of what it's reasonable to let go of. On our tougher days, I don't ask Kiddo to do a lot of extra helping out, only what pertains to him. Today I put his laundry away, only because I knew it would be a  big bone of contention and I didn't want the drama. This doesn't mean excusing our older kids from their self-care and daily chores, however, with younger kids, some days, just getting them to get back into the habit of minding us in regard to basics is all we all have the energy for. Focus on the most elemental tasks on those hard days and then try to have some positive interactions. Or turn things around; for older kids, perhaps swapping out a couple of dreaded chores for the day can help them to know that we are 'for' them and not trying to make their lives miserable. (Of course, on some days, they see us as Pure Parental Evil, and that's just going to be their filter for everything. Adolescents and teens are especially prone to this.) Small olive branches, hugs when they'll let us, a healthy favorite snack or the chance to opt out of something they really don't want to do...just for today, and only if the consequences are reasonable~ all of these can help an older child know that we do not, in fact, hate them. Those nachos you let them eat in their room for a change, away from a pesky younger sibling...they are not just nachos. They are an artifact of love.


Hopefully, some of these strategies will pay off down the road and help you to shake off the Yesterday Hangover. Here's hoping tomorrow is as bright as ever...

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