Thanks for the question, Exasperated. You know how when you get on an airplane and the flight attendants give safety lessons? They tell you that if there’s turbulence and the oxygen mask drops down, put your own mask on first, then help your children. There’s a reason for that. You must take care of yourself first before you can take care of anyone else.
That’s why my first concern is with you. How can you take care of yourself? I have a few ideas, starting with making time for yourself. Even if it’s only five minutes, although I hope it’s a lot more, you need sacred time and sacred space that is yours alone, when you are not responsible for others. This might be anything, maybe a warm bubble bath when the kids are asleep. Or a trip to the supermarket, by yourself, for a s-l-o-w shopping experience. Or exercise, like jumping rope, or speed-walking the baby carriage. (When she was in her stroller, my daughter used to say, “Faster, Mommy, faster!”) Meditation and yoga can also be very relaxing. Find breathing time at work, if you can. Take your favorite or most longed-for activity and mold it to fit your circumstances.
When my kids were little, I worked full time and went to school at night. Some of those years, I was a divorced, single mother. I studied or watched TV when the kids were asleep, or I got up early in the morning to read. Did I yell sometimes? Of course. I apologized, too. Gradually, I learned how to control my temper and yell less; I worked on it for a long time. I told myself to count to 10, breathe deeply, and remember they’re kids. I would try to find the funny side. I’d ask myself what exactly was making me so angry, and sometimes it wasn’t the kids. It was something else, and the kids were just handy to scream at.
I made a game of things if I could. When I washed the kitchen floor, my son and I “skated” on towels together to dry it. Kids can’t do stuff perfectly, but they can be fun to work with. And the natural habitat of happy kids and their parents is a messy house. Also, both kids and adults need rewards, which can be as simple as taking a walk in the park or cuddling on the couch — alone or with company.
I’ve never had twins, but I’ve had two 3-year-olds one at a time, and they taught me that you need to keep it simple. First of all, it helps to take your child by the hand and, in a friendly way, look eye to eye to make sure he or she is paying attention. Long explanations don’t work well because kids don’t understand them, can’t process them, and won’t remember them, so keep it short. And remember your ABCs: Always Be Consistent. Keep the rules simple. You’ll have to repeat yourself a hundred times, but after a while it does get through. You can say, “No throwing in the house.” Or, “Use your inside voice,” while you speak with your own inside voice to give them an example to follow. Sometimes rhyming rules makes them easier to remember, like the well-known, “If you hit, you must sit.” That lets them know a timeout is the consequence of hitting. Ask your child to repeat the rule back to you, so you know he or she understands it. Repeating makes it easier to remember, too. Avoid power struggles. Rather than screaming, “Put your shoes on NOW!” to a struggling and negative toddler, it might work better to say, “Put your shoes on so we can go out and play.” Simple explanations of what happens next can avoid a lot of drama, too. So, for example, you can have the five-minute rule — in five minutes it will be time to brush your teeth. Then have a countdown. Four more minutes. Three more, two, one, blastoff! I think kids benefit from knowing the agenda, as in, “Now we are going to take your brother to school, and then you and I will go to the park.”
Make safety rules inviolable. Label them, “This is a safety rule, it’s important, don’t touch the hot stove.” They’ll get your serious voice and learn this a bit faster than other rules, such as don’t touch Mommy’s stuff. They want to touch everything that belongs to you because they want to be near you and to be like you. They are communicating their need to be in touch with you, and they will usually get you to react. Occasionally when kids need attention, they will do something they shouldn’t do so they get it. If you think this is the case, try to find a way to pay special positive attention by complimenting them on good behavior, or by sharing an activity.
What happens when your child does something he or she shouldn’t? Don’t ask young children why they did something; they probably can’t explain it in words, and maybe they don’t even know why. Instead, take them by the hand, squat down so you’re at their level, look in their eyes, and say, “Let’s talk about what you did.” Generally, setting things up to make the rules easy to follow has better consequences than resorting to punishments for bad behavior, which can become a negative cycle and establish patterns of anger, fear, resentment, and power plays between parents and child. Children respect parents who are loving and fair; they do not respect parents they fear.
Kids love their parents and want to please them … most of the time. Rewarding good behavior with smiles and praise or a special treat is more effective than punishment, which is defined as 1) a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault; or 2) severe handling or treatment. While punishment may reduce the frequency of a negative behavior, it often hurts the quality of the attachment between parent and child. So how do parents reduce or extinguish negative behavior in children if punishment causes more harm than good? The key to changing behavior is praise or positive reinforcement, as already mentioned, and the use of logical consequences. Logical consequences are rationally connected to the problem behavior and are intended to teach the child, not punish. These consequences are considered logical because they “fit” the problem behavior. Some examples of negative logical consequences include: If your child refuses to clean up his or her board game, then the board game is taken away for a couple of days. If your preteen rides his bike without his helmet, then he’s restricted from his bike the next day. Parents can also provide positive logical consequences, such as rewarding a child for doing chores or getting good grades. Rewarding positive behavior will increase the likelihood of positive behavior.
Babies. Wow, babies! They just need to eat in the middle of the night, at any and all other times, and they need to be held, sung to, and have their diapers changed 24/7. Do your best, and remember: The baby will outgrow babyhood.
If you haven’t already, start a series of conversations with your boyfriend about how you can work together to be better partners to each other—and better parents, too. When he comes home, he’s tired and needs to sleep, but after he’s rested, how can he make up for the times that he is away? Can you find a neighbor or friend and trade babysitting? Ask for help when you need it—I hope it is forthcoming—and try not to get discouraged. Can you find alone time to be with each other to relax? Plan some treats to look forward to.
Laugh at yourself and with everybody else. You don’t have to be Supermom, by the way. Being Mom is super enough.
Here are some books that you might like:
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
The Pocket Parent by Gail Reichlin and Caroline Winkler
And a personal favorite: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak