On Mom Guilt and Toddlers Who Hit: How I Got My Kid to Listen Without Yelling (Mostly)

On Mom Guilt and Toddlers Who Hit: How I Got My Kid to Listen Without Yelling (Mostly)

*The following blog was written by Jacs, an AliciaBarksdale.com blog contributor because why not learn how to make parenting your bitch?*

Moms, do you ever sit down after a moment with your child and just want to cry, or is it just me?  Do you ever feel grossly underqualified to be responsible for the lives of little humans?

Well, I sure did as I sat in my living room during my maternity leave, sobbing because I’d lost it after two hours of trying to get my almost 3-year-old down for a nap.  It was only after I yelled at him that he finally went to sleep, but he looked scared to death of me.  That’s not how I prefer to discipline my child, but I was starting to realize that I was becoming less patient as my kid was becoming more and more defiant.  I know it’s normal to feel that way, but in the moment, it made me feel like the worst mom on earth.  Ladies, you know the feeling.

I don’t want to be the mom who lets her kid walk all over her and not listen.  I don’t want to be the mom in public where people whisper about how terrible my child is.  And I really don’t want to be the mom whose kid only listens to her because he’s afraid that “Psycho Mom” will come out.

I don’t like yelling; I never have.  I grew up with a lot of shouting and chaos, and I want different for my kids; I want them to know peace and normalcy in their home.  I have this vision and hope for my kids that they’ll grow up and look back on their childhood happily, not reliving their mom losing her mind at nap time and scaring them to sleep.

I texted my husband: “I’m a terrible mother.  I lost it.  He’s asleep, but I had to freak out.  I don’t want him to be scared of me.”  My husband reassured me that one moment in my parenting doesn’t define me as a parent.  He’s right; it doesn’t.  But sometimes I worry about what will happen if I can’t find another way.  What if I have to resort to losing my mind all the time to get him to listen?  I know that eventually, I’ll find what works for us, but it’s hard not to feel stuck sometimes.  It’s hard not to feel hopeless when your kid is working on your last nerve.

Of course, when my kid wakes up from his nap, I make an honest effort to be more patient.  And then the next day rolls around and here I am yelling again because he just won’t listen!  I sit here, racking my brain and wondering why all of a sudden, my boy is completely ignoring me, no matter how much I try to talk and calmly reason with him.  No matter how much I put him in the corner for time out.  No matter how much I yell or what I take away.  I wonder when exactly my sweet little boy turned into a threenager.  I’ve made excuses for him because he’s adjusting to his new baby brother.  I’ve made an effort to let him know that Mommy still loves him, just as much as his new brother.  But before I know it, maternity leave is over, and I’m headed back to work while my boys are headed to daycare.  And of course, daycare is always served up with a healthy side of guilt.  Moms with full-time jobs outside of the house know exactly what I’m talking about.  The struggle is REAL.

On his second day back, my son’s in time out at daycare.  He’s never been in time out at daycare.  Did I mention that it was on his birthday!  Gah!  Like a good mom, I got up at 4 a.m. that morning to make cookies from scratch for him to bring to daycare and share with all of his friends.  And instead of celebrating his 3rd birthday with all of his friends, my kid is sitting in the corner, in trouble.  So, I pick him up after work and I have a talk with him about hitting and how he can’t be doing that to his friends.  I’m calm.  I’m reasonable.  I use words he can understand.

The next day he ends up in time out again.  A week later, I’m getting texts from his sitter asking me to talk to him about hitting because he just won’t stop.  What the heck is going on?

So, I spend another evening talking to him.  Calmly.  Lovingly.  Hopefully.

When I text the sitter the next day to see how he’s doing, she informs me that my kid’s been gated in the kitchen because he won’t stop hitting the other children.  Great, my kid is a psycho.  That’s it.  I’ve failed as a mom.  I’ve created a violent little toddler who’s ended up locked away in baby jail at daycare because he’s not fit to be around the other children.  Good lord. He’s turning into an unruly brat, and of course, it’s probably all my fault because sometimes I yell and go into “Psycho Mom Mode,” and I work full-time so obviously, I’m just the worst.  And now I’ve got to leave work to go pick up my kid, so I feel like I’m failing at both mom and employee.

I drive straight to daycare to pick him up.  I make sure I look angry so that he knows that this early pick-up is not a treat.  I didn’t say a word, but he cried the whole way home.  We talked a little, but he cried more once we got home.  I let him sit by me while I started making a behavior chart for him to help keep track of his behaviors and rewards.  I wanted it to be something colorful and tangible, something he could look at to see his expected behaviors and the rewards for displaying them.

Eventually, my son calmed down enough to help me with the chart.  His chart had 5 rules:

  1. Say nice words.

  2. Share with your friends.

  3. Be a good listener.

  4. Be a good friend.

  5. Clean your mess.

Our behavior chart for the home.

Our behavior chart for the home.

If he does well at a task, he gets a happy face.  If he gets all happy faces for the day, he has a list of activities he can choose from as his reward.  I felt it was important to make all of the rewards quality time rather than material things, so I wasn’t bribing him for good behavior.  Don’t get me wrong, though:  I’m not above bribing my kid.  We’ve all been there.  I made some behavior sheets with stickers to send with him to daycare.  I even wrote him a story about his rules and rewards staring him as the main character.  I’m no artist, but I’m telling you, if you make a picture book, even with crappy drawings, and tell your kid that they’re the main character, it’ll be life-changing, I promise you.  Toddlers appreciate the effort more than you think.

This is the behavior chart we send with our son to daycare.

This is the behavior chart we send with our son to daycare.

When I’d finished with his chart and his picture book, I prayed.  I just prayed and prayed some more that he’d have a better day at daycare.  I just wanted him to have a good day without incident that way I wouldn’t have to tell my husband he was right and that my “new age bullshit” as he called it, didn’t work.

The next day, I get a text saying that my boy is having an amazing day with no hitting or time outs.  I sit at my desk and happy cry as I stare at the words on my screen.  Maybe I’m not a failure after all.  Maybe I’m not a bad mom and my work isn’t ruining my kids’ lives.  Maybe, just maybe, I’m pretty good at this whole thing.

Now listen:  We’ve had our struggles.  Hearing that my boy was hitting and acting out was a tough pill to swallow.  Keeping my cool around my defiant child has been one of the biggest tests of my patience, and I feel like a lot of the time, I fail at it.  Once I calmed down and quit beating myself up, I made the charts and my son has had one heck of a turnaround.  I haven’t yelled at him since we made the behavior charts together.  I’ve really made an effort to focus my time and attention on his positive behaviors and praising him for his good choices, rather than yelling at him and reinforcing and focusing on his negative behaviors.

I ask him often if he’s being a good listener or a good friend and he remembers what he’s supposed to be doing.  I often wonder how I didn’t think of this sooner, you know, since I’m a social worker and all.  My whole job revolves around building up my clients by focusing on the good stuff in order to modify the bad.  I guess sometimes it’s easier to see things from the outside.

And hey, it’s not a perfect system.  The other day, I got a text that my son got hit with a toy by another toddler at daycare.  Rather than hit back, he responded with, “Well, shit.”  At least he didn’t hit back.  I’ll take that as a win.  We are a work in progress, folks.

I think back to my desire to not be the mom who yells.  Instead of my son constantly hearing how bad he’s being or everything he’s doing wrong, he’s hearing about what a good dude he is and he’s being praised for all the good things he does, no matter how small.  Aren’t we always saying that it’s the little things in life that matter the most and make the most impact?

Look, we’re all doing our best.  Being a mom is hard work.  And even us moms with the best intentions can fly off the handle sometimes.  We are a work in progress.  For now, I’ve found something that my son responds to.  For now, he responds to the words I say and most of the time, I don’t have to yell and I can be the calm mom who talks things out.  Am I perfect?  Heck no.  But just like the rest of us, I’m doing the best I can.  One moment of parenting doesn’t define you as a parent; giving your best as a parent does.

Before I leave you, I’d like you to know a few things:

You are not the only mom who yells.

You are not traumatizing your kid for life if you’ve raised your voice.

You can definitely learn to keep your cool, but you’re probably going to yell sometimes and THAT’S OKAY.

Do your best.  Cut yourself some slack once in a while, and the next time you see a fellow mom at the grocery store and her kid is losing it, maybe instead of an eye roll or a side eye or offering some unsolicited advice, you give her a nod or a smile in solidarity.  Let her know she’s not alone. This parenting thing ain’t easy, and there’s no one right way to do it.  We’re going to make mistakes along the way, and that’s okay.  Know that as long as you are showing up and giving your all, you are enough.  We’re all in this together. 

Jacs is an AliciaBarksdale.com #MomLife contributor.  She works full-time and lives with her husband and two beautiful little boys.