Sometimes I think all my real parenting successes have to do with hitting upon just the right metaphor to illustrate a concept. Patience, example, levelheadedness—forget it. All I've really got going for me is a knack for figurative language. But hey, if it works...
One image that has worked wonders here lately is the tipping cup. Years ago, I noticed something about toddlers. If a two-year-old is holding a cup of water, and it tips and begins to spill, the child—rather than righting the cup—will nearly always turn that cup right upside down and dump out the rest of the water. Which is why you only gave the child water, and not juice.
It struck me a certain type of temperament is prone to similar behavior when it comes to anger. I have a hot-tempered child whose natural tendency is to react to any slight upset with a full-fledged outpouring of wrath. If her cup of emotion tips, so to speak, her inclination is to just pour it all out.
So one day I talked to her about toddlers and tipping cups, and how our feelings can be like the water in the cup. She seized hold of the metaphor immediately. We talked about how part of growing up is learning how to straighten your cup back up after you've been jostled. You don't have to let every little splash turn into a big flood.
This image has become a bit of code between us. I'll see her beginning to lose her temper after something annoying happens. "Straighten your cup," I'll murmur, and more and more often, she takes a breath, presses her lips together in grim determination—and keeps her temper in check. I've come to know the expression on her face that means she is struggling to hold her cup upright. She likes to cuddle up with me in the afternoons and talk about her triumphs.
"I didn't tip my cup, Mommy," she'll whisper. "I wanted to pour it all out, right on [insert sister's name] head." A pause, a wicked chuckle, as she savors the image perhaps a bit too much. She knows there is acid in that cup. "But I didn't."
And that's what counts.