Aha! Parenting Blog

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7 Tips to Stay Cool when Your Child Acts Up

 "Let it go. The moment you feel your hackles rising, let it go. If you let it upset you, what follows is anger, and to quote Yoda, that leads to the dark side.... Notice … and interrupt it. Find your own way of accepting things with grace."  -- Steve Errey

All parents get angry at their children. There's nothing wrong with feeling anger; anger is a message. The problem is that we can't hear that message clearly while we're angry. In the heat of the moment, we're in fight, flight or freeze. And when we're in "fight," our child looks like the enemy. So we think the message is that we should vanquish the enemy -- our own child!

In fact, the message when your child gets upset is that he needs your help, even if he's being totally difficult. Maybe we need to put him to bed an hour earlier, or connect with him more, or simply make it safe enough for him to cry and show us all those tears and fears that are making him act out. But we can't understand or act on that message when we're triggered. Staying cool is essential to actually solving the problem, instead of making it worse.

So how can you stay cool when your kid acts up?

1. Notice that you're getting annoyed. Sometimes, we don't notice until we're already on the dark side. But usually we can see our annoyance building, because we start gathering kindling. What do I mean? We start reviewing all the reasons we're right and our child is an ungrateful brat. Once you start gathering kindling, it's hard to avoid the firestorm. So as soon as you notice that your mind chatter about your child is negative, STOP. Drop your agenda (Just temporarily.) Take a deep breath to stop the runaway train of your anger.

2. Use your inner pause button. Even if you’re already well down the wrong path and you're yelling, STOP. Take a deep breath and hit the pause button. Close your mouth, even in mid-sentence. Don’t be embarrassed; you’re modeling good anger management. Save your embarrassment for when you have a tantrum.

3. Take Five. Don't try to address the issue with your child while you're angry.  Calm down and get re-centered so you can actually hear the message behind your anger. Are you frightened about your child's behavior?  Resentful toward your partner?  Exhausted and stressed out so you're over-reacting to your child's normal age appropriate behavior?

4. Feel the emotions in your body. I'm not suggesting that you swallow your anger, just that you resist acting on it. Instead, notice the anger in your body. Really feel the tightness in your belly, that suffocating feeling in your throat. Breathe into those tense places. As you simply open to the feelings in your body, you'll feel them beginning to shift and melt. That's the secret of mindfulness -- once we sit with those emotions, just accepting them with compassion, they melt away.

5. Shift your state. Now, reframe your thoughts about the situation and you'll find that you have different feelings. If you're thinking that your child needs to be taught a big lesson right now, you won't be able to calm down. If you remind yourself that she's acting like a child because she IS a child, and that she needs your love most when she seems to deserve it least, you'll be willing to shift out of anger.

6. Try a Do-Over. Tell your child that you're sorry you got so upset, and the two of you are going to try a Do-over. This time, stay calm. Empathize. Listen to your child's feelings and try to see things from her perspective. Resist the urge to blame, and instead look for solutions that work for both of you. If your child has damaged something -- including a relationship -- ask her what she might do to repair it. But always start by listening to her upset and empathizing.

7. Practice, Practice, Practice. I'm not going to lie to you. This is really hard work, one of the hardest things anyone can do. If you're used to flying off the handle, you'll be teaching your brain new patterns of self-discipline. That takes practice. Luckily, every time you resist acting when you're angry, you're rewiring your brain, so managing your anger gets easier every time you do it. 

Sure, you'll lose it sometimes. But if you just keep practicing, holding yourself with compassion and noticing the emotions, you'll find that even when your child acts up, you're more able to stay cool. At some point, you'll realize that you rarely lose your temper any more. You'll still have childish behavior as long as you live with children, but your reaction will be different. A lot less drama, and a lot more love.

Yoda would be proud.


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