Updated: Feb 16
Ever tried to get a child to leave a birthday party? A playdate? The park? Leaving something fun is often tricky. Just ask any parent. It can be hard work!
I’ve often used the strategy of giving 5 minutes notice when we are about to leave a party, making sure that I give my children time to finish up what they’re doing and give myself the feeling that I’m a kind and predictable mum for considering their need to have advance warning that it will soon be time to leave. Even so, I’ve often led a reluctant child from a party. I’ve even led a reluctant, screaming child from a party. However, I’ve never felt totally comfortable with the uneasy feeling that I’ve been the bad guy ruining all their fun, again.
Sometimes I’ve managed to get a quiet child to the car only to have them meltdown on the way home. I’ve blamed all the sugar! I’ve often then had my own tirade of, “Well, I gave you plenty of warning that it was time to leave.” Inside I might also be thinking, “Oh, for goodness sake, when I’ve just spent my Saturday afternoon at a 6 year-olds birthday party! Really?!”
Recently though, I had a completely different experience, though it started out much the same as any other party farewell. We had been at a joint birthday party for a brother and sister (10 & 7) and so our whole family (Mum, Dad, son 10 and daughter 7 attended). All was going well (or so I thought!). It was nearing the end of the party, other guests were preparing to leave and so I gave my daughter the general, “We’re going to be leaving soon. Is there anything you’d like to do before we go?” She had a game that she wanted to finish and then she’d be ready. Great! So far, so good!
Then it was time for the more deliberate, “You have 5 mins left, sweetheart. Please finish up”. “OK Mummy!” Great, still on track. 5 mins later I told her that it was time to leave and she looked at me like as though deciding whether or not to scratch my eyes out. She scowled as she walked past but left without protest and even stopped to say goodbye to her friends and the birthday girl. I took a moment amid the relief, to pride myself on how well she’s learning to leave parties (I should be completely honest though, because on this occasion, we were leaving with a friend of hers who we were dropping home so it might have been a tad easier than usual). When we got to the car my daughter started making minor complaints about not wanting to sit in her designated seat, (the same child seat she sits in every day to and from school). It was too tight and she didn’t like the belt. She got in reluctantly. Wow, I thought to myself. She’s managing really well. Then her friend got out of the car. KABOOM!
As well as hating the car seat, now the music wasn't loud enough. My son wanted it quieter. My daughter wanted it louder. She wanted the belt loosened. We wanted it firm enough to keep her safe. We really just wanted to go home! Everyone had an opinion. Bit by bit we had turned the music up so loud that we couldn't actually hear one another properly. My son had his fingers in his ears. My husband was not far off that either. Apparently though it still wasn't loud enough. So my daughter did the only thing left to do. She screamed at the top of her lungs, “You WILL turn the music up. NOW!” At which point I wanted to scream right back at her that I have had enough, that I have just spent 3 hours at a party when I would rather have been at home drinking wine and bingeing Netflix, that she is being completely unreasonable about the music and that her complaints about the car seat are exaggerated and unreasonable, that it is the demon sugar making her feel this way, that she’ll feel better in the morning and that if she doesn’t get back in her seat, (which she has now unbuckled so that she can get into the front and turn the music up herself) I will strap her in so tightly that she won't get out, maybe ever!)
My normally too-calm-to-be-believed husband was beyond irritated, yet simultaneously felt helpless. So very cleverly he remained quiet. You might not think that this is helpful, however given he’s witnessed my previous attempts to control and reason with our daughter, where my loss of patience has lead to giving in to my own rage, it is actually the smartest thing he could do right then.
However, this is where the story went differently from before. You see I have been working on this for years. I’m not a particularly angry person. I love my children more than I love anything else in the world. Yet somehow these tiny little beings assert themselves and manage to push buttons I didn’t even know I had. Having been a teacher and an art therapist you’d think I’d have some clue, but your own children are something completely different. I have worked on my own emotional baggage. I have read every psychology or parenting book I can get my hands on. I have dredged the web dry and have diligently applied everything I believe to be true (and even a whole lot I didn’t believe, too!). I’ve even become a trained facilitator of parenting programs. I teach other parents how to remain calm in exactly this type of situation.
Finally something clicked. And it wasn’t about helping my passionate strong willed daughter to regulate her emotions. It was about learning how to get her passionate, strong-willed mother to regulate hers.
And this is what happened next…
I pulled the car over to the side of the road. I took a deep breath. (Dr Laura Markham calls it Stop Drop and Breathe www.ahaparenting.com Micheal Grose from www.parentingideasclub.com.au calls it Stepping Away. I reminded myself that there was no urgency, no rush, no life at stake. (Except maybe my daughter’s if I didn’t get myself under control). I often draw on my ongoing meditation practice in these highly emotive situations. I am slowly learning to call on my ongoing mindfulness and meditation practice in these highly emotive situations. I remained calm and centred as I got out of the car, opened her door. Using my Active Listening and problem solving skills from Parent Effectiveness Training I began the process of helping my daughter through her outburst of big emotions. This empathy and connection, just quietly, is the most powerful tool I know!
“Wow, you are so angry right now. Your seat is uncomfortable. The music isn’t loud enough. Even when the music is right up it is still not loud enough and you are still so angry. It makes me think you’re not even sure what you are angry about anymore.”
“Yes, I am! You made me leave the party early. I hadn’t finished my game!” And there it is!
“Oh! I’m so sorry. You weren’t finished yet and it was time to leave.”
“Yes, and now I’ll never get to finish it ever again!”
“It is so hard when something ends when you’re still having fun.” (I remember well the call for last drinks and the closing of the bar - I wasn’t ready to go home either!)
My son (bless him) tried to offer the very reasonable suggestion that she could always organise a playdate to finish the game later. Needless to say she wasn’t ready for solutions, she was still in her primitive, emotional brain where things felt like life or death. This was serious! So I told him that I appreciated his help but we were not quite ready for his solution yet and I forged ahead.
“I hadn’t realised how important this was to you and now the party is over and you’re wishing you had had more time. I’m confused because you came when I said it was time to leave.”
“Yes, because I knew you would keep coming in every few minutes and interrupting the game so I decided to leave.” Arms folded, sniffling but no longer screaming.
“So you decided to leave even though you didn’t really want to because you thought I’d keep interrupting you. And you are still feeling mad about it. I can see how hard that must have been and then even worse when you couldn’t have the seat you wanted and then the music wasn’t how you wanted it. Boy, no wonder you were so upset.”
Now, she was nodding and making eye contact again. And I'm not joking, her turn around was that fast!
“Hmm. Well I can see how that could make you really mad. I’m not sure how we can fix this however we do need to get home. I’m wondering if you would like to try the other seat now that your friend is out of the car?”
She hopped into the seat and buckled it herself. I gave her a hug and a kiss and thanked her for calming herself enough so that we could be on our way. Back in the driver’s seat I took a long, deep breath and exhaled slowly. Wow! What a difference.
The immediate episode was over however I didn’t want to leave it all up in the air. There was still the problem of the party and having to leave before she was ready. So I broached the subject there and then, with continued empathy.
“I really am sorry that I hadn’t taken more notice of how important finishing your game with your friends was to you and how much you don’t like me interrupting. It sounds like you would like me to trust you more. Sometimes I’m worried that you will lose track of time or start a new game.”
“But I wasn’t going to. I was just going to finish my game and then come out.”
“Hmm. I'm wondering how we could handle it better the next time we are in that situation. I’m going to try really hard just to give you one 5 minute warning and then leave you to finish.”
Happily she added, “And I’ll finish my game and come out when I say I will.”
“Okay. Well guess what? We have another birthday party next weekend (My social life now revolves around children’s birthday parties). Would you like to try it then? I know I’m going to have to work really hard not to keep coming in and checking on you. I might have to sit on my hands and keep saying to myself, don’t go in, don’t go in!”
Guess what? She laughed! Her beautiful, unrestrained, contagious laugh and I knew all was right in our world again.
Enjoy Parenting workshops and courses promote greater empathy and connection. Melissa is an authorised instructor of Dr Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training, a program that models and explicitly teaches the skills of active listening, assertiveness and conflict resolution.