Those familiar with the field of adult relationships and adult communication might recognize this method. It's often called the "rewind" method, a throwback to VHS movies.
Basically it goes like this. When you and your partner start to feel angry towards each other, that means something has gone wrong several steps before the actual anger, so instead of diving into a fight, you hit rewind and try it again. Some professionals even recommend using that sentence to communicate. "Wait, let's rewind and try again."
This has come to make a lot of sense to me when parenting. Almost always, the times when I feel as if my child has done something "bad" and now I have to do something to disapprove of it, are times when my communication/behavior/environment has eroded before my child acted out.
Think about it, if you feel any of the common responses about to pass your lips...the "because I said so" "just do it" "listen to me or else" "I'm counting to three" "NOW" etc etc...something has gone wrong several steps back.
When I pause and then rewind, I can usually pinpoint where something got confused. Or I find where my child did/said something and I didn't respond or I responded poorly, and it went back and forth until it created a dynamic leading us to a fight.
Going back to the adult relationships, think of this example. The woman is tired from staying with the kids all day. In comes her partner, stressed and tired from work. He'll say something short because he's tired. She misinterprets because she's tired. He'll be angry over something else and direct it onto her. She's too exhausted to point it out and redirect him, so she yells back at him. He starts the "always/never" statements and she bangs the cabinet door. All this anger and fighting over nothing, really.
Well, the same thing can happen in the parent/child relationship. The parent is tired. The child is tired. Usually a timer is involved such as being late to an appointment. The parent is distracted with her worries. The child is distracted with the world around her. The parent is hungry and has a headache. The child is hungry and can't talk about headaches. Misinterpretation. Miscommunication. Too many unmet needs. Pressure, anger, frustration and fighting erupt.
Who in the above scenario deserves to be punished? And is punishing one person going to restore the relationship? Improve communication? Bring the parent and child back together? Will responding to the child acting out, thus escalating the situation, get them back on track or steer them farther off road? Will the needs of both people be met or just ignored even longer, derailed by the punishment and angry feelings? Is anything solved other than the parent maybe letting off some steam?
Take time to pause and rewind when you start to feel as if your child is driving you insane or you're pulling someone up a mountain. Take time to analyze what happened a few minutes or even hours before the child began acting out. As you practice this, you'll start to find your answer and once you find the answer, you'll be able to use real tools to help solve the true, underlying problem and restore the relationship.
For younger children, the lava underground is almost always basic needs such as being hungry/thirsty, tired, sick, overstimulated/understimulated, under the influence of dietary triggers (gluten, dairy, additives, dye, etc), uncomfortable such as too hot or cold, or a recent situation of anxiety such as a stranger scaring them at the store.
For older children that list above might still apply but they also might be struggling with big emotions they can't pinpoint or communicate to you such as stress from a school project, embarrassment within a peer group, peer pressure versus inner values, anxiety as they become aware of the big problems in the world, insecurity about their bodies, etc.
What makes you snap at others? What makes you "break a rule" or act rudely to those around you? Put that into the size of a child's world. If you're stressed, hungry and tired, do you operate at your best? If you're having a hard time with your best friend and scared for your mom's health and worried about the bad news you heard on the TV, are you on your best behavior? Why, then would we expect better behavior from children who are still new, still practicing and learning and still struggling with big emotions and fears?
Going back to the adult relationship example, when the adults pause, then rewind, careful communication begins the healing process. It's not enough for one person to think about what went wrong. The two people have to acknowledge it. Having a struggle or unmet need acknowledged by someone you care about is powerful. It can help dissipate negative feelings rapidly. How might this look with a young child?
Parent: Whoa. You're really upset right now and acting out. We don't hit people. Let's rewind.
Child: I'm MAD! *stomp* *cry* *eye roll*
Parent: I can see that. You know, now that I think about it I realize we haven't eaten in hours. Your tummy must be feeling very hungry!
Child: My tummy HURTS, Mama! *cries relieved tears*
Parent: Let's grab a snack before we go to our next errand.
What about an older child struggling with a different situation?
Parent: Those were really disrespectful words you just used. That really hurt my feelings. Let's rewind.
Child: I don't WANT to! I HATE LIFE! I don't want to go back to school!
Parent: I heard that you refused to go along with pranking another kid at school.
Child: I've been banished! The whole school is going to laugh at me tomorrow!
Parent: It's really, really hard for us to stand by our values when others are pressuring us to do things we think are wrong. I'm proud at how strong you are and that you didn't hurt that boy. Those kids might try to make fun of you, but maybe they are just trying to make themselves feel better.
Child: Yeah. Maybe. *subdued*
When you take time to pause and rewind, it not only helps to decrease the friction in a relationship, but it also provides an opportunity to learn a lot more about your child and what's really going on under the surface. This method isn't easy. It'd certainly be easier to just feel angry about whatever the child was doing, spank or yell and move on. But sometimes slowing down and looking deeper will give you both a lot more than any kind of punishment ever could.