I was driving near an urban mall just a few days before Christmas. Traffic was crawling at about one block per half hour. My Pre-K son started making unhappy noises. I don’t mean crying, I mean random noises, like “AAAAH” and “OOOOH” to relieve boredom or frustration. I failed to identify the sentiment as bored or frustrated, though. I interpreted it as uncooperative and annoying.
To escape traffic, I chose a longer route. No escape. Now I was on the longer route, traveling at one block per half hour. My son kept making noise. Annoyed, I kept asking him to be quiet. Both of us kept raising our voices, trying to win. Eventually, I was screaming myself hoarse, hoping that eventually, he would give up or get scared or gain a solemn respect for me. But instead, he matched me decibel for decibel. If decibels were drinks, we both would have been under the table. Oh, and also, I had a pounding headache.
Over the years, we went through many variations on this theme. Son pulls daughter’s hair while mom screams for him to stop. Or, father drives, son kicks mom’s seat, mom grabs son’s foot, daughter is crying.
Car troubles are definitely worse when the child’s tantrum triggers a mom-tantrum. For kids, a tantrum can be a last-ditch effort to control a situation when they don’t know what else to do. This is the same for moms. At least for me. It’s when I’m at my wits’ end that I yell and threaten. It’s when I feel stuck or overwhelmed and can’t think of anything else to do.
It took years for us to get to the point of consistently good drives (I’m a slow learner). I used to look for the magic phrase to say, or the magic time-out technique. Now, I’ve recognized that my demeanor is more important than my technique. Of course, recognizing is only the first step. Practicing takes longer. Years later, my kids still make unhappy noises. I still yell sometimes. I even found an effective technique, but it only works when I am calm. Actually, the technique helps me stay calm, because I have a plan.
The technique is this. I won’t drive angry. If I feel like I’m getting angry, I pull over. Then, I sit quietly while the kids fuss or whatever. Eventually, one will ask, “Can we go now?” My answer is that we can go when they have been still and quiet for two minutes. Early on, it could take up to an hour to achieve two minutes in a row of quiet. My point is to let them learn to quiet themselves. If son is hurting daughter, I will let daughter sit up front with me while we wait for calm in our parking space. After the quiet time, we move on. We talk about what caused the disagreement, and what each party could have done to de-escalate it. Sometimes we talk as we drive on, or if it has been a particularly difficult time, we talk before we drive on. The waits have gotten shorter and less frequent.
We even managed a drive from Ohio to Texas. The kids started arguing before we got through Ohio. I told them, “No arguing until we get to Arkansas. Then, you are allowed to have a great big blowout. But not before then.” I guess this seemed weird enough to surprise them into behaving — all the way to Arkansas! We were actually in Arkansas when they started arguing again. “It’s ok to argue now,” I told them. “You waited until Arkansas, and now you can have a big fight.” They paused. “But do you want to fight?” I asked. Amazingly, they stopped right then and there. We made it all the way to Texas with no fighting. Holy sigh of relief, Batman!
The big lesson for me is that when I am more calm, the kids are more calm. When I am overwhelmed, they are overwhelmed. The better I learn to handle my own tantrums, the better the kids handle theirs. Drive on, mom!