J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

How To Avoid Parent Rage

Berserker rage — not a good parenting system.

I don’t write much about my daughter — I’d like to protect her online privacy until she’s old enough to make her own decisions about that kind of thing.  However I’m making something of an exception in this post because I want to write about parenting emotions.  I’ve had a breakthrough in the last year or so that I’d like to share with my readers (and get feedback as well from other parents).

First of all, I don’t believe in “one size fits all” parenting.  Kids are different, parents are different, and different approaches are needed.  For example — re: the bed vs. crib wars — it’s pretty obvious some babies adjust super quickly to the hard-line “cry it out” method and actually only cry for a night or two.  On the other hand, some kids don’t adjust and everyone in the family will do better with co-sleeping.  Or maybe, as a parent, you don’t feel right about “cry it out” even though it might be effective.  As a parent, you have to feel it out and adjust course as necessary.  Reality trumps dogma.

That said, there are some attributes of toddler psychology that are fairly universal.  They will push you.  They will test you.  They will watch closely how you respond and adjust their own behavior accordingly.  They will also just try stuff to see what happens.  To the toddler, it always seems like a reasonable decision at the time.  I remember doing some pretty crazy stuff as a little kid.  I recall sitting in front of an electrical outlet, holding a hairpin, for about ten minutes, wondering what the hell would happen if I stuck it in.  My thinking was something along the lines of “there’s no way that electrical outlet could be so poorly designed that I could electrocute myself, is there?”  Curiosity got the better of me, and I paid the price.

My own daughter, who recently turned 3, is sometimes well-behaved and polite; other times mischievous and rude as a sailor.  Like all human beings, when she’s worried about something, tired, or feeling neglected, her behavior gets worse.  In terms of my own reaction to any bad behavior on her part, I tend to get the most angry or frustrated when she does stuff like:

  • purposefully tries to destroy material items I value
  • draws on walls or furniture
  • finds ways to endlessly delay doing something she doesn’t want to do (brush teeth, trim fingernails, etc.)

Most of this behavior is tapering off (“terrible twos” are winding down), but I’ve also learned to change my own behavior and reactions in positive ways.

Put on Your Oxygen Mask BEFORE You Assist Your Child

A big “a-ha” moment for me was realizing that I’m useless as a parent (and a human being) whenever I’m in a deteriorated mental state — either angry, exhausted, overly anxious, melancholy, or whatever.  I’m a better parent when I take whatever steps are necessary to:

  • get enough high quality sleep
  • take care of business (work, bills, obligations, whatever might be stressing me out)
  • get enough adults-only time with my wife, and also with my friends
  • modify any antisocial behavior performed by my child BEFORE it drives me into an enraged berserker state

As parents, we’re better off taking care of our own emotional needs before considering the whims of our children.  To some this might sound obvious; to others selfish.  To me it seems practical and necessary.  Still — it’s difficult.  As a parent, it’s easy to fall into the same habitual behaviors you use (and which are appropriate) around other adults.  You treat other adults like equals.  When other adults behave badly, you either tolerate it, or you initiate a rational discussion (at least that’s what you do if you’re behaving like a grown-up).

Treating toddlers like equals, or trying to have rational discussions with them, will get you nowhere.  They will take advantage of you and run circles around you.  A different, blunter approach is needed.

Just use the numbers.

1-2-3 Magic

The book that opened the doors of perception for me, in this particular area, is Thomas Phelan’s 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2–12.  The main technique of the book is to use a counting system when your kid is acting out.  Let’s say your kid is banging her knife on the dinner table (while grinning at you maniacally).

“That’s a one.  Please stop banging your knife on the table.”

“That’s a two.”

“Okay — that’s a three.”

At three, she get’s a “time-out” alone in her room for as many minutes as she is years old.  Despite the fact that you might have to carry her there kicking and screaming, it’s not a cruel or unusual punishment.

Used consistently, the system works well.  Most kids choose to curb their obnoxious behaviors at 1 or 2, and home life gets much more peaceful.

The amazing thing is what happens in the mind of the parent.

No More (Adult) Temper Tantrums

A key part of the 1-2-3 Magic methodology is to implement the counting system without emotion and without lecturing.  You don’t raise your voice or make any display of anger, and when the time-out is over you don’t “have a talk” about what happened.  Your kid already knows they did something wrong — the timeout is the whole of the punishment.  They don’t have to listen to you blather on for another ten minutes about empathy, ethics, social conventions, or whatever philosophical drivel you think might improve the future behavior of your kid.

It’s not that you shouldn’t explain things to your child, or explain values and morals — but you don’t make the lecture part of disciplinary process.  The time-out is the punishment, and that’s it.

Having a simple, effective, consistent, non-cruel way to discipline our kid has vastly improved our family dynamics in every direction.  The key change in adult consciousness is avoiding adult temper tantrums.  My frustration level just doesn’t get that high anymore.  I’m at the “end of my rope” much less than before I had this tool.  If a behavior is annoying me — I realize it’s OK to do something about it.  I don’t have to tolerate it.  I don’t have to stretch to the very limits of my patience because my daughter hasn’t yet learned to consider how her actions might affect others.

Ongoing Process

I still occasionally forget and revert to old, ineffective behavior patterns.  My daughter has a rocking horse that makes a loud galloping sound when you press a button concealed in its plush ear.  The other morning I was woken up by a cacophony of cut-up galloping sounds — sampler-keyboard-stab style with a single sample.  Still groggy, I began to make threats involving utility scissors and the ear of a certain horse.  “Just use the counting,” my wife reminded me.  She was right, of course — there was no way my empty threats were going to stop the noise — if anything my daughter’s bold curiosity would probably make her call my bluff.

The nice thing about the time-out is that you can actually use it as punishment, and not feel too bad.  Still, some parents might not feel right about it, or may not need it, or might do fine with another system.  As a parent, you have to feel it out.  But for parents feeling frustrated and at the “end of their ropes,” I highly recommend at least reading the book.

Have you used 1-2-3 Magic?  What system do you use and how is it working out for you?

Addendum: I’d like to add that around the time my daughter turned six, we mutually agreed to a “no grabbing” policy (unless she was in physical danger, like about to walk into the street). This change felt mutually respectful and less “power trippy,” and improved our relationship. Of course it also meant I could no longer physically enforce any kind of time-out. These days, the rare times we need to do a “count” lead to a loss of privileges like screen/TV time. I’m sharing this just to emphasize that what might be appropriate at one age can quickly lose effectiveness or even become counter-productive at another age or development stage. Also, it’s important to *share* power with your child, not just wield it.

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6 Comments

  1. stephen

    Our challenge has been consistency from both mom and dad (me). When mom has elastic boundaries I become more of a drill sergeant. The behavior of two boys competing for the affection and attention of one mom is completely different than when I am present. I’ve actually been counting to three myself before reacting and staying as calm as possible. I find this way more effective than raising my voice because it disarms their anxiety and leaves more room for a productive conversation or warning.

  2. The self 1-2-3 count … I like it.

  3. Marianska

    My heart goes out to you. The challenges of parenting can put us all on an emotional roller coaster over and over again. If I may, I would like to recommend some excellent books to read, if you are so inclined. There is a whole literature on attachment parenting available that has emerged in the last couple of decades that is crucial to parenting with heart and looking at “problems” from a whole different perspective. Three books are “The Continuum Concept” by Jean Liedloff; “Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason” by Alfie Kohn; and “Playful Parenting” by Lawrence J. Cohen. I consider these quality books that challenge the older child rearing paradigms and philosophies. There are many others I can also recommend, but will only do so if asked for more. I hope I am not out of line in recommending these books.

  4. Hi Marianska — thanks for your comment and recommendations. In terms of attachment parenting, I just can’t get behind some of the concepts.

    Co-sleeping … we did it, and it was probably good for my daughter’s emotional development. But I hated it. I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep. I’m so happy to have my bed back.

    I look forward to using “reason” with my daughter, but at this age (three and a half) she responds better to simple consequences (1-2-3 Magic).

    I believe that attachment parenting works well for many parents, but I think just as many parents drive themselves nuts trying to apply attachment parenting principles when it’s not a good fit for the family. Or the techniques might work great for one kid, but not another.

    Still … thank you for the reading list … glad to have it as part of this post for parents who are exploring options.

  5. MB

    Hello. I’ve just started reading the 1-2-3 Magic book in order to gain insight with regards to managing the three year old who is in my care weekday afternoons. (Her mother is on board and is reading the book too.)
    One of this sweet, stubborn and defiant little girl’s more frustrating behaviors is not listening to me when she is a playing with friends. In general she will respond to our green light/red light system when she is running ahead of me on the NYC sidewalks on the way home but she ignores me when she’s with friends. I’m not sure whether this would be a counting behavior or not. Any insights? Suggestions?

    • In addition to 1-2-3 with a time-out threat, I use bribery (treats usually, my latest is xylitol gum), other threats (taking toys away), and all kinds of coercive and manipulative techniques. I always try polite asking first, but if that doesn’t work I escalate pretty quickly, and follow through on consequences. What I try NOT to do is get mad, or lose control (of my own emotions), or forget that it’s actually quite difficult to be a three year old.

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