Zibby Owens: I'm here today with Carla Naumburg, PhD, who's a writer, speaker, and clinical social worker and the author of How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Calmer, Happier Parent. She's also the author of two other mindfulness books. She's contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, HuffPost, and Mindful Magazine. She currently lives with her husband and two daughters outside of Boston.
Welcome, Carla. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Carla Naumburg: I am so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Zibby: I have to tell you, my daughter who’s five, no, she's six now, loves the title of your book. She thinks it’s the funniest thing. I told her this morning I was interviewing you. She's like, “Oh, my gosh. That's amazing!” She may sneak in at some point. You have a lot of fans. Perhaps I lose my shit with my kids too often and they think it’s funny. [laughs] Just wanted you to know.
Carla: One of my friends was reading this book. Her daughter, who I think is in second grade, found it and was like, “When is she going to write a book called How to Stop Losing Your Shit with Your Parents? That's the one I need.”
Zibby: That's funny. I like that.
Carla: I thought that was cute.
Zibby: That is cute. Tell me what How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids is about. What inspired you to write it?
Carla: It’s basically what it says it is. It’s a book exploring how we parents can be more patient and present and not explode at our children quite so often. It also talks about what to do after the inevitable explosion happens because we’re all going to lose it sometimes. I wrote the freaking book, and I still lose it with my kids sometimes. That's okay. That doesn't make you a bad parent. It’s not a problem to be solved. It’s just part of reality with kids. If you feel like your temper is becoming the predominant way that you're interacting with your children or you're exploding on a daily basis or more often than you're comfortable, this book might be helpful for you. The way I came about it, I don't know. The topic of this book has basically been my personal and professional life’s work for the past eleven years. I have two daughters. My older daughter is almost eleven. God help me if I call her ten years old. My younger daughter is nine.
Parenting is hard, man. It’s really hard. Before I had the kids, I really wasn't a yeller, except maybe at my sister in high school. That totally doesn't count. I found myself exploding at my kids. I was like, this is not awesome. This was when they were little. They were so little, and I was yelling at them. You'd think that as a clinical social worker I would totally know how to handle this. Yet there was one night that I refer to in the book when it got so bad -- my girls were two and three years old -- that I sat down and literally started googling “How do I stop yelling at my kids?” I have a PhD in clinical social work, and I couldn't figure it out. That night set me on this journey that took a few years. I finally came up with a few ideas and practices and strategies that have been really helpful. That's where the book came from.
Zibby: That's amazing. I love it. It’s such a helpful book. You start with six truths that will help you keep your shit together instead of losing it. I wanted to run through those and ask you about a few of them. Your six truths are, one, parenting is hard; two, every parent loses their shit sometimes; three, contrary to what you may think, you probably haven't broken your children; four, even so, losing your shit sucks; five, it’s not a matter of willpower; and six, you can learn how to lose your shit a whole lot less often. The one I want to talk to you about first is number five. It’s not a matter of willpower. I have four kids. I try hard not to lose it, but sometimes you just do. I feel like if only I had tried harder... Tell me how it’s not only about willpower and there's more to it than that.
Carla: I met a mom once who was like, “You know, I just decided to stop yelling at my kids, and I stopped.” What? Are we speaking the same language? Are you a human? If I turn you around and open the little door on your back, will I push buttons and there's little wires? I don't understand how that works. If I could've done that, I would've done that. That's what I call a coulda/woulda strategy. Willpower is like a muscle. When we use it too much or even at all, over time, it gets tired. By the end of the day, it basically doesn't work, which is why we stand in front of the fridge trying to decide what to eat and we end up eating chips for dinner. It even takes willpower to make a decision like, should I eat this or that? Should I get out of bed or should I hit the snooze alarm? All these little things we do during the day. Am I going to fight with my kid about the shoes or let them wear flip flops to school?
Every single little thing takes willpower. By the time we get to the end of our day, we’re exhausted. We have none left. That's often when parents are losing it with their kids. The other thing is that our willpower is a function of our prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that’s right behind our forehead. I think of it as the adulting part of our brain. That's the part of the brain that helps us make good decisions and moderate our emotions and plan ahead and stay calm even when it’s hard. When we are triggered, which is something I talk a lot about in the book -- my super clinical definition, it’s very scientific here, Zibby. My super clinical definition of being triggered is anything that makes you more likely to lose it with your kids. When we are triggered, we’re more likely to lose it with our kids. When we are triggered, it essentially sends us into what I call the fight, flight, freeze, or freak-out response, which lights up our limbic system, which is sort of the toddler part of our brain. We’re born with it. It’s there to keep us alive. It puts us into survival mode.
When our limbic system is online, our prefrontal cortex goes offline. When we are triggered by any number of a million things that can trigger us, whether it’s chronic pain, or a stressful interaction with a colleague at work, or we haven't slept in a decade, or we have to pay a bill and we’re not sure where we’re going to find the money to pay that, or a difficult phone call from a family member, or you stubbed your toe, it doesn't matter, when we are triggered, our limbic system is more likely to come online. Our prefrontal cortex goes offline. Willpower? See ya. We really want to set up these strategies and systems and habits that are going to make all that less likely to happen. When we focus on willpower, that's a set up for failure in a lot of cases.
Zibby: By the way, I love how on Instagram you're always like, “I just got back from whatever situation full of triggers.” I love it. It’s so awesome because you're so open about it. “Trigger city, this is what's going on.” Some situations, they're minefields for your own sanity. That's one of the things I was expecting the least as a parent, was that my own emotional regulation would have to be so fine-tuned to deal with the constant inputs of all these changing things.
Carla: It’s a lot. It’s not that way for everyone. My husband, thank the lord for the sanity of our home, is not this way. What I've learned over the years is that I am what some researchers call a highly sensitive person. This is sensitive not only in terms of what's going on with this person, relationally in tune to people, but loud noises are triggers for me. People touching me is a trigger for me. Anybody who's spent five minutes with a toddler knows, and baby, they touch you all the time. As much as you love that touch, it’s a trigger. Strong smells are a trigger. I don't like most foods. Not a fan of flavor over here. My poor foodie husband dies a little bit every time I'm like, “Don't spice the chicken. Don't do that.”
Zibby: I'm the same way.
Carla: And big emotions. I feel all the feelings. Somebody described it as having your nervous system on the outside of your skin. I feel all the feelings all the time. A lot of this exists in my body. What I talk about in the book is that triggers make your buttons big and bright and super sensitive and all lit up. As anybody who's ever been in an elevator with a little kid knows, they see a button and they push it. Then they push it again. We’ll be standing on the sidewalk and the girls are pushing the crosswalk button twenty-seven times until I freak out and explode at them. I've had to learn what I need to do get my buttons dim again so they're not so pushable. For me, moving my body, exercise every day has become basically a nonnegotiable. We’re at the point now where the girls will look at me and be like, “Mommy, you seem kind of grumpy. Have you exercised today?” I kind of want to kick them in the teeth, but I don't. I listen to them. They're right. Trigger Town, USA, over here.
Zibby: That's interesting. I also have passed the test for highly sensitive person. Read the book, I relate.
Carla: Which is why we both love books so much because books are not triggers for highly sensitive people.
Zibby: It’s true. Yes, totally. I kind of wish I had been a therapist as well. [laughs] Tell me about -- you came up with these two acronyms in your book, FART and BuRP. FART, feelings, automatic, reactive, and toxic. BuRP, I forgot to write what that stood for. Tell about these two and how we’re supposed to use these to help ourselves.
Carla: First, I want to explain why I chose these words. A big part of this book -- I didn't include all this profanity and potty talk in the book just for fun. Although, it was pretty fun. That helped. I want to constantly remind parents that this parenting this is far too serious to be taken seriously. We have to laugh at ourselves. We have to remember how ridiculous this is. I remember when my daughters were really little before they were potty trained. I was thinking to myself, there are people on this planet, other than doctors and nurses and healthcare workers, who don't regularly come in contact with other people's bodily fluids. They just don't. Yet that is literally my life all the time. We have to able to laugh about it and stay silly and remember that it’s all so crazy. That the beauty of it. It’s also the challenge of it. The acronym FART is one I use to describe some of the features of a parental meltdown. If your kid is about to jump into ongoing traffic and you reach out and grab them really hard and pull them onto the street and maybe snap at them, I wouldn't actually call that an inappropriate explosion. You were responding appropriately to the intensity of the moment, keeping your kids safe. Let's talk about, what are the features of the explosions that I'm worried about?
F is for feelings. Obviously, there are a lot of emotions involved when we explode at our kids. The thing is, we may or may not be aware that we’re having those emotions. There could be anger, guilt, powerlessness, shame, anxiety, frustration, confusion, all of these or some of these. They may or may not have anything to do with our children. It could be something that happened at work. Maybe another mom at pickup gave us some weird look or sent a snarky email and we’re still processing that. There's emotion somewhere happening for us. One of the things that many of us think is that we can somehow control our feelings, that we can choose to be happy or choose to feel better. I call BS on that. You can't control your feelings. No feeling is ever wrong. That's what we talk about in our family. The behaviors, those may be problematic, but every feeling is okay. F is for feelings.
A is for automatic. This is my way of pointing out that for most people, it’s not like you walk in the door from work after a rough day and think, today’s a good day to lose my shit with my kids. I think I'm going to go ahead and do that. We don't that. Once we are triggered, once our fight, flight, freeze, freak-out response kicks in, it’s a pretty automatic behavior that happens. It can happen very quickly, which is why it really is a practice. It’s something we have to work on over and over again to get better at catching ourselves and stopping that response, which is something I talk about later in the book.
R is for reactive. All I'm saying here is that something has triggered this. We are reacting to something. Many of you may say, “Actually, I'm reacting to my kids. My kids are annoying. They're being obnoxious. They're nagging me. They're having meltdowns in public. They're mouthing off. They're being uncooperative,” whatever it is. I say, yeah, that's probably true because that's what kids do. The problem is if we say I'm only losing it because of my kid’s poor behavior, then essentially what we’re saying is until my kid behaves better, I'm going to keep losing it. We’re letting our children's behavior control our own. What every parent says to their kids is, “You can't control anybody else's behavior. You can only control your own.” That's true for us too. We need to figure out what we’re reacting to, what is triggering us, so that we can start to figure out a better way to respond. That's R.
Then T is this idea that our parental explosions are toxic. What I mean by that is that it’s a disproportionate response to what's happening. It’s scary and confusing for the child. If you grab your kid because they're about to run in the street, there's a pretty clear narrative about what happened there. Child was making an unsafe decision. Parent reacted strongly to save their life. Let's say your kid spills the milk. For you, when you were a kid, spilled milk caused a very strong reaction to your parents. They screamed. They yelled. They got really mad, and so you find yourself exploding over spilled milk. That's confusing and scary and pretty unpredictable and out of proportion. Your kid is going to be like, what is the story here? They're not consciously thinking this because little kids don't, but they get very confused. They start to think that things are unpredictable and that small mistakes can cause major problems. Does that make sense for FART?
Carla: That was a lot.
Zibby: It totally makes sense. I love, in particular, what you just said about feelings and how there are no wrong feelings. I feel like my kids, no matter how I try to mask them, if I'm upset about something, they pick up on it right away. I try to be like, no, I'm going to smile and pretend that this bad thing is not going on. No, it’s like they can see right through me. It’s freaky. [laughs]
Carla: Kids know us. They know us so well. It really is an evolutionary thing for them. They literally depend on us for survival. The way they survive is they know our every little thing. I raise an eyebrow the wrong way and my older daughter will be like, “Okay, what's wrong?” I'm like, ugh, I don't want to talk about this. They really do know. Their fingers are perfectly matched for our buttons. They find buttons we didn't even know we had. They push, push, push. I think we do our children a disservice when we try to hide our experiences from them. Number one, it’s confusing. It feels distancing when you're like, I know something is wrong with you, but you're not telling me. The message we’re inadvertently sending our children is you always have to put on a happy face.
Zibby, I think for you and me and for our mom listeners out there, this a woman thing. I'm not saying it’s our fault. I'm saying it’s a societal expectation of women, that we always look happy. Smile more. Don't they always say that in the media to the politicians? You've got to smile more. I get very cranky about that. I think it’s okay. Obviously, you want to say things to your children -- wait, backing up. The other reason why we do our kids a disservice when we try to hide feelings from them is not only are we teaching them that they should always be happy and if they're not happy they should hide it or try to hide it, but kids are by nature very egocentric. They think the world revolves around them. They think that they are the cause of everything. It doesn't mean they're little psychopaths. It’s just developmentally very typical, very normal.
If a parent consistently seems unhappy and the child doesn't have an accurate narrative to explain why, they’ll go with, “I did something wrong. Mom or Dad is mad at me. I must have done something wrong.” Then that creates anxiety for them. Then they get trigged. They may be more likely to lose it. It’s very confusing. With my kids, you want to frame your explanation in a developmentally appropriate way. You wouldn't say to a four-year-old, “Your grandmother was being a bitch to me. It really stressed me out,” obviously. [laughter] You might say, “Mommy’s having a hard day. I was really busy today. I had a lot of work. I'm pretty tired,” or whatever it may be. Now I’ll say to my daughters, “I had a really stressful day at work. I had a phone call that didn't go well.” They're older now. They can understand. When it’s appropriate, I’ll try to give them a little more insight into what's going on.
Zibby: I love that. Excellent. Wait, then what's BuRP?
Carla: We've got to talk about BuRPs. Zibby, I've got to tell you, I'm super proud of this acronym because I think it really worked. BuRPs stands for button reduction practices. One of the ideas in the book is that when we are triggered, our buttons get big and bright and super pushable. BuRPs are these basic practices -- guys, this is really not rocket science here -- that help those buttons get smaller, dimmer, less obvious, and less pushable so that when our kids come along with their little fingers out, there's nothing to poke. There's nothing to push. I've got eleven practices. They're all pretty straightforward. It’s things like getting enough sleep at night, stretching your body, going for a walk, getting some exercise, doing some stretches, whatever it is, slowing down. We are much more triggered when we’re rushing. I have found that a lot of parents -- I don't know if this resonates with you. I've gotten in the habit of rushing even when I don't really need to rush. Through transitions I’ll be like, “We've got to go. We've got to go. We've got to go.” Then I'm like, oh, we actually have several more minutes. We’re fine. Part of that is I hate being late.
Zibby: Me too. I put all these false deadlines. Then I make us early. They're like, “Why did you rush us so much?” But you've never been late! [laughs] I need a pat on my back.
Carla: I know. If you're a person who hates being late, then slowing down is a big one. Having a lot of support, support is a major BuRP, button reduction practice. When you have the people around you, whether it’s your best friends that you can text all the snarky videos to at the end of the night or it’s the other parent that you're like, “Hey, I'm going to be five minutes late to school. Can you grab my kid and hang out?” I've got eleven of these different practices that can really help us calm down, feel less stressed, less tense, less triggered. They're very helpful.
Zibby: Awesome. What do you do if you do lose your shit with your kids?
Carla: First of all, the first and most important step is to get calm. You have got to calm yourself down first. Until you are calm, if you try to reengage with your children, you're going to end up exploding at them again. Here's what this looks like. You're still triggered. You decide that it’s time to go reengage with your kids. You go over to them. You do this half-assed apology which is like, “I'm really sorry I lost it with you, but I asked you twenty-seven times not to throw that ball in the house. Then you ended up breaking my favorite vase.” That's actually not an apology. That's just losing it again and you're throwing the word sorry in there. The other problem with trying to reconnect with your kids before you're calm is that if you go over there and you're expecting your child to apologize or you're expecting your child to say something nice to you and they don't do it, you're much more likely to explode at them because you're still triggered. The first thing, nonnegotiable, that you've got to do after you blow up at your kids is you need to get calm.
Two of my favorite strategies for that are getting curious about your own experience or having a lot of compassion for yourself because this parenting thing is really hard. I give a lot of strategies for that because what I find is what most parents do after they blow up is they go into this shame spiral. They feel terrible. They're like, “I'm a terrible parent. I can't believe I lost it with my kids again. I'm never going to get this right. They're going to be a mess. I better starting funding the therapy jar now.” I used to go in the kitchen and search for chocolate. That's what I would do, just feel awful, shove the chocolate in my face. It didn't really help. Tasted good. Didn't help. What I really encourage parents to do now is to find a way to calm themselves down with a whole lot of compassion.
Curiosity can help. If you can say to yourself, what just happened? Am I tired? Am I hungry? Am I triggered? Is my child triggered? What do I need right now? You can actually get some actionable information about what's happening for you. Then you go apologize and reconnect to your child. Let me be very clear. I'm a big fan of apologizing. It’s a thing in our family. Sometimes after the apology, there is another conversation about limit setting. “I am sorry for my behavior. I shouldn't have behaved that way.” We love the “I” messages, taking responsibility for our actions. “The other side of this coin, kiddo, that we need to talk about is that I was very clear with my expectations about your cell phone use. You didn't follow them, so we’re going to have that conversation now.” Just because you apologize to a child doesn't mean you can't then set limits with them.
Zibby: Interesting. You have this one tip from actor Jack Black where he says, “Never give a happy child ice cream.” I just loved that. That was so funny. Are there any tips like that that you've gleaned from other people or having all your experience in your practice that you've really internalized?
Carla: Yes. I would say there are two. First of all, the happy child ice cream has become a mantra for my husband and I. We’ll see the girls. They're happy. They're playing. Whether we’re out of the house or in the house, one of us will have this inclination to go over and play with them or offer them something or be like, “Let's do this. Let's increase their fun.” Then I’ll look at my partner. He’ll look at me and be like, “Ice cream.” That's our little code for leave them alone. Don't get involved. Do not make eye contact. Back slowly away. Don't try to add joy on if they're already happy because inevitably, you will lead to a meltdown.
The other two tidbits of wisdom that have become really powerful for me -- the first one was actually from my grandmother who was a mother of seven and many, many grandkids. I called her up many years ago just a mess because I couldn't teach my girls how to swim. Every time I tried to bring them into the pool with me, they would cling to me like these terrified monkeys. We weren’t getting anywhere. She said to me, “You know Carla, it’s not your job to teach your kids everything. You can't teach your kids everything. Go find someone else to teach them to swim.” That was this mind-blowing moment. I thought as the mother and the default parent -- I was only working part time, so I was the one doing the drop-offs and the pickups and the whole nine yards -- that it was literally my job to teach my kids everything. When she said that, I really felt this burden lift from my shoulders. Oh, it’s not my job. Guess what? We paid for someone else to teach them how to swim. It was amazing. They were not nearly as clingy and anxious with this other person. It was fantastic.
Zibby: You also say in the book, it’s not your job to make your kids happy either. That's also not your full responsibility.
Carla: We are not responsible for our children's emotions. We’re not. We’re not responsible for anybody else's emotions. Come on, we’re barely responsible for our own. It’s not like we can control them. We live in a culture that glorifies happiness. We should all be happy. Happiness is the goal. If we’re not happy, it’s because we’re not working hard enough or doing the right things to be happy. What I would say to parents is, again, I call baloney on that one. Really unhappy things happen in life, whether it’s a scary diagnosis or a car accident or a bill we can't pay or a divorce. There are things that are really legitimately good reasons to be unhappy. It’s okay if we feel unhappy. I want my kids to learn that. Of course I want my children to be happy when they grow up. More important than that, I want them to know that they can keep functioning and know what to do when they are unhappy or when they're having difficult emotions. It’s not my job to keep my kids happy. It is my job to keep them safe. It is my job to teach them what they know. It’s my job to be present with them as often as I can without losing it, because too much and I lose it. Their emotional state is not my responsibility. I hope that makes sense.
Zibby: This is all such amazing advice and advice I wish I had heard a few years ago. My older kids are twelve already. Obviously as you can see, I have my little daughter here who's six and then an almost five-year-old. If I had read your book when my kids were just starting out when I really felt I didn't have a handle on it, I would've been a far better parent, I think. Anyway, whatever. We’ll go from here. [laughs]
Carla: Also, to be clear, it’s so easy for me to say all these things on a podcast. My kids are away at school. They're not here. I just went for exercise. I'm thinking pretty clearly. I've got my trusty coffee. It’s easy to say all these things. In the moment, they don't come naturally. When I'm with my daughters and they're sad, my first inclination is I want to make the bad feelings go away. Then I have to catch myself. I have to work hard and say, no, it’s okay for my daughter to feel sad. My job here is to not make her happy. My job is to sit with her and let her know it’s okay to cry. That is not my gut-mommy response. If there are listeners out there who are really struggling with this, come over. We’ll hang out because I'm struggling with it too. When I say it’s a practice, I literally mean it’s a thing we start out being really bad at. The more we practice it, we get better. This is the work of a lifetime.
Zibby: How did you fit in writing this book in the midst of everything else? When did you do it? Where do you like to write? Do you write at home? Did you go out to write? How did the process look for you?
Carla: It was a mess. It was a messy, messy process, as all my writing is. I would love to say that I'm one of those writers who's like, “I get my kids off to school. Then I make my coffee. I sit down at my desk. I write from nine until twelve. Then I have a healthy salad for lunch.” No. I fit it in where I could. I try to write most days a week. I do write at my desk at home. I have a fantasy about having a little writing office somewhere. It turns out nobody wants to give you that for free. You need to pay rent.
Zibby: Really rude.
Carla: The thing that kept me writing is that I had an editor and deadlines. That was the thing that really helped me keep this a priority. Otherwise, it’s a little harder to stay focused. I have kids who get sick. I have random events at school that pop up in the middle of the day. They're like, “We really need you here for this Native American fair that we’re going to announce today. Can you bring twenty-seven pounds of maize tomorrow, or corn?” That is not a thing you can buy. I don't know where to buy it by tomorrow. [laughter] Listeners who know where my kids go to school, I love this school. I love it. I love the teachers. I want to be realistic. I was a lot to fit in. I had to work hard to fit it in. There were some days when I would say to my husband, he'd walk in the door from work and I'd be like, “I'm out. I've got to go to the library or somewhere and do work.” He was incredibly supportive. The teachers at my daughter’s school made it possible for me to write this book because they kept them all day and taught them things. While my kids were at school, I worked. I've always had a part-time job in addition to the writing. It’s busy, but when you're doing what you love, it feels a little bit easier.
Zibby: What advice would you have to aspiring authors who are trying to do this as well?
Carla: My first piece of advice is if you're in it for the money, find something else. It’s very, very hard to make money writing, real money that people can live on. If you're a person like me who has always written and can't imagine doing anything else and this is the only way to scratch that itch, then you've got to do it. You should probably have a job at the same time unless you have a winning lottery ticket. The other thing I would say is read a lot in the genre you want to write in. If you want to write a parenting book, you've got to read the parenting books. You need to know what's out there. You need to know what's getting published. You need to know what the trends are. If you look in The New York Times best seller list for how-to/miscellaneous, there's a whole lot of books in there with swear words in the title. You bet your tushy that inspired me a little bit in this book. You've got follow the trends.
The other thing I would say is write with the voice that is who you are and what feels most authentic. My first two books did not have any profanity. They had a little bit of humor, but they were much more straitlaced parenting books. They're good books, but this book, this is me. You read this book and then you come meet me, and you know the kind of conversation we’re going to have. That doesn't work for everyone. I was terrified to write this book. I was talking to a friend. I was like, “There are people who are going to hate it.” I expected her to be like, “No, everybody's going to love your book.” Instead she said, “Yeah, there are people who are going to hate this book. There are people who are not going to want to read this book. Those aren't your peeps. That has to be okay. There are other parenting books for them. There are people who have been looking for this book and haven't found it yet, and they need it.” As soon as my friend said to me, “Yes, there are people who are going to hate your book, and it’s going to be okay,” I was so liberated. Know that no matter what you write, somebody's not going to like it. That has to be okay. The thing that will let you continue in that writing process is knowing that you are writing what's true for you, something that is authentic and real that you really believe in. That's what's going to keep you motivated even knowing that it’s a challenging process.
Zibby: By the way, everyone I've mentioned your book to is like, “I have to get that book right away.” My peeps appear to be your peeps.
Carla: Thank you. [laughs]
Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on the show and for writing your great book and for all this advice and honestly just being so real and showing all of us, this is what it’s like. It’s okay. We don't have to be perfect. The more that we all, as a mom community, adopt that and feel better, the better off we’ll be and the better our kids will be.
Carla: Thank you. Thank you for all the work you do to support authors and writers and books and support moms who think they don't have time to read.
Zibby: You're welcome. [laughs] It was great to meet you. Thank you so much.
Carla: Thank you so much.