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Ask a Pro: Ilaria Urbinati, Parent




My wife and I recently had a second child, and between that and school closures & lockdowns, it’s been really hard on our oldest daughter who is 5. She’s always been quite coddled, and lately I feel like we are always losing our temper and snapping at her a lot. I would love some advice on how to better handle this. – Anonymous  


I may not be a certified caretaker, so this is a sort of exception to the PRO rule, but I decided to take this question on, seeing that I am a parent of three, who just recently had twins, and also have a 5-year-old daughter.

Just yesterday, after only one day of Thanksgiving break, I caught myself snapping at my eldest three different times. And I thought, jeez, parents who’ve had their kids at home from school all this time must be yelling at their kids a lot more than usual. There’s probably a whole lot more parent-kid fighting these days. Which is just another shitty part of this whole situation.

But then, and this is sort of funny, I was watching Home Alone with my kids that night, and the parents in the movie are always yelling at Kevin, in a way that in 2020 feels pretty jarring but makes perfect sense in a 90s movie. As I was watching, I thought, boy, it was way more acceptable for that generation (i.e., our parents) to be rough on their kids (i.e., us).

And here we are raising the most coddled children—easily—in the history of time, and stressing about snapping at them. I mean, my dad used to whoop us kids with a belt for misbehaving—and maybe that’s a European thing, but as far as I can gather, fairly universal for anyone born before 1999. Yet somehow, for the most part, we all managed to turn out OK.

More likely, the best thing that’s ever happened to the future-adult version of your child is getting a sibling to have to share the spotlight with. It might feel tough on her now, but it will help her as an adult to be more independent and self-assured.

All this to say, I actually think we are a generation of parents leaning hard on the side of over-coddling our children, and that a little disciplining, and yes, even losing our tempers here and there, might not actually be the worst thing. If anything, I’m concerned this next lot of kids might turn out way too sensitive due to our being way too easy on them. I already see it with the current generation. They are all quite, um, fragile. Sometimes I try to picture them storming the beaches at Normandy…and I can’t.

But I digress…my focus with my five-year-old is that I try to keep consistent about the things I’m stern about, and I try to keep my sternness purposeful and conscious, as opposed to unconsciously snapping at her out of a frazzled mood. If she’s misbehaving, I get stern and “raise my voice” on purpose as a disciplinary choice I’m making, as opposed to because I’m losing my shit.

And sometimes it’s just a matter of taking a time-out with her, later, when things are calmer—or even in the middle of a tantrum sometimes, I’ll stop what I’m doing—sit down with her, give her a big hug, then just make her talk to me. I confront her, gently but with assertion, and just say, ‘Talk to me. Tell me what’s really going on.” Why is she acting out? Why is she being competitive or jealous? Sometimes I have to ask, and ask, and gently push until she talks to me and tells me what’s really on her mind, and then we talk it through.

I find it important to talk to her with the respect I would give an adult, without actually holding her up to the standards I would expect from an adult.

Believe it or not, often times I’ve been able to get her to open up, in her own toddler way, and even to get to the underlying issue of what’s going on. During the first three months of lockdown, a heart-to-heart following a “You’re not the boss of me!” tantrum, led to her admitting that she simply missed her friends.

At that point, a little reassurance goes a very long way. If nothing else, it’s teaching her that she can always talk to me. That I’m a safe space for her to work through her mixed-up little feelings. Remember that it’s really important to always uphold your end of that deal by not down-playing her answers, and by really acknowledging her, her feelings, and the fact that she’s even attempting to communicate. And never try to argue against her feelings. She’s five. They feel very real to her.

At least, that’s what I aim to do. It doesn’t always work out, and I don’t always have that kind of patience. And I always make sure to apologize when I mess up, because I think it’s important to set the example that apologizing doesn’t mean defeat.

In the meantime, just try to remember that our parents rarely wore kid-gloves with us, and yet we all turned out OK somehow. She’s gonna be OK too.

If anything, it’s yourself you need to go easy on. These are hard times for everyone, and we are all in this shit storm together.

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