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Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry

Why is it so easy to go from “zero to 60” when our kids make us angry? There are many reasons, but I think it’s mainly because we allow ourselves to go to 60. And in a sense, when we get up to 60—when we react emotionally—we’re allowing the behavior of our kids to determine how we’ll behave rather than the other way around.

We do so many things automatically without even thinking about it. This is often because we believe that we need to get our kids under control, rather than taking a moment to stop and think and say, “Wait, let me get myself under control first before I respond.” The best way to prevent yourself from getting up to 60 is to recognize that you are going there—and what makes you go there. In fact, in my opinion, that is probably one of the most important things you can do as a parent.

When you try to manage your child’s behavior instead of your own anxiety, what you’re saying is, ‘I’m out of control. I need you to change so that I can feel better.

Here’s a secret: when you get yourself under control, your kids will also usually calm down. Remember, calm is contagious—and so is anxiety. When we as parents are nervous or anxious, it’s been proven that it creates anxiety in our kids. I would even go so far as to say that being emotionally reactive is probably your greatest concern as a parent. Think of it this way: if you can’t get calm—if you can’t get to zero—then what you’re really doing is inadvertently creating the exact atmosphere you’re trying to avoid.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re teaching your child how to ride a bike. Your child is not getting it and is being whiny and cranky and talks back to you. You’re frustrated, annoyed, angry and disappointed, because inside you somehow feel responsible to teach him to learn how to ride this bike, and he just won’t listen. Now you’re starting to get agitated about it. You yell at your child because you’re up to 60. The end result is that your child will probably fall off the bike. Here’s why: he’s so filled with the anxiety that’s surrounding him that he can’t concentrate. He’s feeling pushed to do something and he reacts to it by failing. What can you do? Instead of snapping and reacting because you feel like you have to get your child to learn how to ride the bike, try turning it around and ask yourself, “How do I get myself to really be calm and how will that be helpful for my child to get to where he needs to be?” Remind yourself that you’re not responsible to get him to ride the bike, you’re responsible to get yourself to zero. From there, you can think about the most effective way to help him learn.

This is why I say that if we can’t calm down we’ll probably create exactly what we’re trying to avoid—failure. Think about someone you know who is calm and serene; their presence helps center everybody in the room. When you’re calm, that’s the effect it has on your child and your family. It will help your child de-escalate, learn how to soothe himself when he’s nervous or agitated, and will make him better able to do what he has to do in tense moments. And in that moment, he won’t have to fight against you, because you’ve effectively taken that push-pull—the power struggle—away by being calm when he pushes your buttons.

By the way, I understand that nobody wants to go to 60—no one likes to be upset. I think most parents’ goal is to get to zero, but often they just don’t know how to do it. The truth is, everybody has to find the best way to do that for themselves. (I have some ideas about how to do that that I will explain in a moment.) But ultimately, it’s about understanding how important it is not to lose it—and not giving yourself permission to do so. And there’s a good reason for this. When we hit the roof in front of our kids, what we’re really communicating is “There are no grown-ups at home.” We’re saying that we can’t manage our anxiety. And when you try to manage your child’s behavior instead of your own anxiety, what you’re saying is, “I’m out of control. I need you to change so that I can feel better.” So the goal is to acknowledge what’s going on, and to understand how important it is to get control—and to ultimately gain control of ourselves. The question you’re probably asking is, “Easy for you to say. How am I going to get there?” Here are some things I’ve found to be helpful for parents when I work with them.

1. Make the commitment not to lose it. Remind yourself that you’re going to try to stay in control from now on. Notice what sets you off—is it your child ignoring you? Or does backtalk drive you up the wall? It’s not always easy, and I think it’s hard for anyone to control their temper 100 percent of the time, but still, making that first promise to yourself is the beginning of calm—for your whole family.

2. Expect that your child is going to push your buttons. Usually we get upset when our kids are not doing what we want them to do. They’re not listening or they’re not complying. In our heads, we start worrying that we’re not doing a good job as parents. We worry that we don’t know what to do to get them under our control. Sometimes, we fast forward to the future and wonder if this is how they’re going to be the rest of their lives. In short, we go through all sorts of faulty thinking. And in doing that, our anxiety goes way up. I think the best solution is to prepare for your child to push your buttons and not take it personally. In a sense, your child is doing his job (being a kid who can’t yet solve his problems)—and your job is to remain calm so you can guide him.

3. Realize what you aren’t responsible for. There’s confusion for many parents as to what we’re really responsible for and what we’re not responsible for. And so if you feel responsible for things that really don’t belong in your “box”—things like him getting up on time or having his homework completed—it will result in frustration. They don’t belong in your box—they belong in your child’s box. If you always think you’re responsible for how things turn out, then you’re going to be on your child in a way that’s going to create more stress and reactivity. So you can say, “I’m responsible for helping you figure out how to solve the problem. But I’m not responsible for solving the problem for you.” If you feel like you’re responsible for solving your child’s problems, then he’s not going to feel like he has to solve them himself. You’re going to become more and more agitated and try harder and harder. You’re not responsible for getting your child to listen to you, but you are responsible for deciding how to respond to him when he doesn’t listen to you.

So already you’re going to be calmer with that kind of thinking. If you feel responsible for getting your child to listen, think about it—just how are you supposed to do that? How is anyone supposed to get another person to do something; how are we supposed to control what somebody else really does? Instead, decide to be responsible for how you want to deal with your child if he doesn’t listen. Think about the kind of consequences you want to hand out, based on what you can and can’t live with—your own bottom line. In the long run, standing up for yourself will help you be the leader your kids need.

4. Prepare ahead of time. Notice when the anxiety is high and try to prepare for it. You might observe that every day at five o’clock, your family’s nerves are on edge. Everyone is home from work or school, they’re hungry, and they’re decompressing. For many families, it’s just a terrible time of day; everybody’s anxiety is up and patience is at low ebb. Ask yourself, “How am I going to handle this when I know my teen is going to come screaming at me? What do I do when she asks to use the car when she knows I’m going to say no?” Prepare yourself. Say, “This time, I’m not getting into an argument with her. Nobody can make me do that. I’m not giving her permission to hit my buttons.” Your stance should be, “No matter how hard you try to pull me into a power struggle, it’s not going to happen.” Let yourself be guided by the way you want to see yourself as a parent versus your feeling of the moment.

5. Ask yourself “What’s helped me in the past?” Start thinking about what’s helped you to manage your anxiety in the past. What’s helped to soothe you through something that makes you uncomfortable? Usually the first thing is to just commit yourself to not saying anything when that feeling comes up inside of you. In your head, you can say something like, “I’m not saying anything; I’m going to step back; I’m going to take a deep breath.” Give yourself that moment to be able to do whatever it is you need to do to get calmer. I always have to walk out of the room. Sometimes I go into the bedroom or bathroom, but I leave the situation temporarily. Remember: there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to react to your child.

6. Take a breath. Take a deep breath when you feel yourself escalating—and take a moment to think things through. There is a big difference between responding and reacting. When you respond, you’re actually taking some time to think about what you want to say. When you react, you’re just on autopilot. As much as possible, you want to respond thoughtfully to what your child is saying or doing. Make sure that you take that deep breath before you respond to your child because that moment will give you a chance to think about what you want to say.

Think of it this way: when we’re upset and trying to get our child to do what we want, we’re going to press harder. We’re going to try to control them more, to shape them up or talk some sense into them, so we yell harder. And we go from 20 to 40 and it keeps escalating. It might be the time of day. Perhaps your child has had a hard day and then we react to their mood. And then they respond in kind and it just escalates. The anxiety feeds on itself.

7. Keep some slogans in your head. Say something to yourself every time you feel your emotions rising. It can be anything from “Stop” or “Breathe” or “Slow down” to “Does it really matter?” or “Is this that important?” Whatever words will help you, take that moment and go through a list of priorities. I personally keep a mental picture handy to calm myself down: I think of a beautiful place in my mind that always calms and relaxes me. Try to come up with that mental picture for yourself. Working on that will increase your ability to be able to go there more automatically.

8. Think about what you want your relationship to look like. How do you want your relationship with your child to be some day? If the way things are now is not how you want your relationship to look in 25 years, start thinking about what you do want. Ask yourself, “Is how I’m responding to my child now going to help? Is that going to help me reach my goal?” This doesn’t mean that you should do what your child wants all the time—far from it. Standing by the rules of the house and giving consequences when your child acts out is all part of being an effective, loving parent. What it does mean is that you try to treat your child with respect—the way you want him to treat you. Keep that goal in your head. Ask yourself, “Will my response be worth it?” If your goal is to have a solid relationship with your child, will your reaction get you closer to that goal?

When your child is aggravating you, your thinking process at that moment is very important.  The whole goal is really to be as objective as we can with what’s going on with ourselves and with our kids. Ask, “What’s my kid doing right now? What’s he trying to do? Is he reacting to tension in the house?” You don’t have to get him to listen, but you do have to understand what’s going on—and figure out how you’re going to respond to what’s going on. Then you can stay on track and not be pulled in a thousand different directions.

The thinking process itself helps us to calm down. As parents, what we’re really working toward is “What’s within my power to do to get myself calm?” So the less we can react, the better—and the more we think things through, the more positive the outcome will be. Thinking helps us to be calm and breathe; calm helps us to get to better thinking. Observing ourselves helps activate the thinking part of the brain and reduces the kind of “emotionality” that gets in the way of better thinking.

That’s really what we’re talking about here: responding thoughtfully rather than simply reacting. Someone once said, “Response comes from the word responsibility.” So it’s taking responsibility for how we want to act rather than having that knee-jerk reaction when our buttons are pushed. And if we can get our thinking out in front of our emotions, we’re going to do better as parents. And that’s really the goal.


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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

READER'S COMMENTS

Just in these 8 steps of this article, I feel like I have a 100% better perspective on raising my teen daughter.

Comment By : slimr101

very helpfull thanks

Comment By : claudia

Best article I have read...I have 17 1/2 year old twins and my twin son has a big anger issue.....I have made a copy of your excellent advice and have put it in my bedroom nightstand (I have to walk away from him when he is out of control so I will now reread your excellent points until I am calm).

Comment By : carol

Excellent article. Thank you for your direct, practical advice!

Comment By : jscheidies

Now that my son has gone through this process and him and I now have a better relationship - it's been a two year process - I'm going through it with my daughter. I thought she would learn from my son's mistakes, but I was wrong, so I'm now going through the process all over again. I totally depend on these newsletters every week! I'm finding myself reacting to her escalating and I'm having to find my "calm" place. What has helped me in the past to raising kidz in general is I worked for a sexual assault response center and part of our training was crisis intervention. I recommend parents go to their local domestic violence, sexual assault response, or gardian ad litem centers and take their crisis intervention training. Most are between 30 and 40 hours. It helps in ALL crisis. When my son knocked his tooth out at our local water park, everyone was freaking out, including my husband. When you have training, you're able to remain calm and keep your injured party focused while waiting for support and services. Just an FYI!! Hang in there everyone!

Comment By : luvmykidz

Thank You for this excellent article. Most things written are directed towards smaller children ie:tantrums, etc. This article addresses the older child, who looks like an adult, but who certainly does not act like an adult(teenagers). Sometimes they are the child you remember, and then in a flash of a moment, they have turned into someone quite nasty. I think being prepared for a situation ahead of time helps me a lot, but of course, I hardly ever have the chance to be prepared for what is coming. I agree with the comment before, I am going to print this out and read it during my time out!

Comment By : Michelle

Can it really be that simple ? I love the idea of only keeping whats in my box !! Thanxs

Comment By : fostermom4life

Excellent article with great tips. As a stay-home foster dad (ages 3,5, with a 6 year old bio duaghter) I am constantly searching for ways to put their behavior in perspective. I have learned to strategically place rocks in this river of chaos because dam building doesn't work. Thanks for the tips.

Comment By : daddyo

I really needed to hear this. I react all the time. Thank you!

Comment By : momoftween

my son is 9 and I hate that I react. I dors not make me feel in control or good about our relationship

Comment By : mom of 3

responsibility = responding with ability. It's not responsinability. :-)

Comment By : judiilana

Good Lord did I need this today. My son hadn't had outbursts of anger for a long time, this week twice already. I am printing to carry in my purse for times of need. Thank you so much, it's nice to know I'm not the only parent out there that has lost it and need support in these teen years.

Comment By : lisa

I like the idea of is not "in my box" but it's kind of hard to apply this since we are their guidance. I have tried this and it back fires on me, my son says to me "you're the parent" love these newsletters & articles; they have helped me a lot.

Comment By : Xtremkidz

Love this article. Very interesting ideas. I have heard some of them before but you summarize and explain them so well. Even though I heard some of these ideas before, I guess it has been hard implementing them. Thank you for reminding me. This time I got them even more.

Comment By : Lejla

Great article, a lot are things I have learned in the classroom as a teacher. My new slogan will be "ZERO." What also helps at home or school is focus on how really cute they are, or in the case of teens, how cute they used to be!

Comment By : hirakawa

Wow, perfect timing for this article! This is exactly what goes on in my house with my 9 year old son at least 2 days a week. I now see where I am wrong and have the tools to change. Thank you.

Comment By : dolphin girl

I would really like to say that I am the kind of parent that doesn't lose control when their child doesn't listen; but I would totally be lying. I am a single mom to 3 kids and they recently lost their dad. Their dad and I had been divorced since 2001; but always got a long very well and could always count on each other for advice or help when it came to the kids. I knew what it was like to be a single mom; but now I really know what it's like. I am truly a single mom with no help. I read every article or yours that pertains to my kids and I try to use the advice and usually just end up giving up when I see no results. I have a 13 yo that is feeling a lot of stress from his dads death, bullying going on at school, and then there is mom trying to teach me responsibility and not being very receptive. It gets very old hearing people tell me that they are at that age and he is angry because of his father dying and stressed because of the bullying. Seriously; when is it the right time for him to take responsibility for his actions. He has ADHD and some of the forgive me for saying but the stupid things he does; I have a very hard time not screaming at him. I also deal with my 6 year old not wanting to get out of bed every morning. I have threatened to take her to school in her pj's but come on seriously who really does that and not lose their job. My employer would not be very understanding of me being late for that reason. I constantly take things away; but I am so ready to give up. We spend roughly 3 hours a night on home work and that even includes my 1st grader. She is just learning to read and is having difficulty and so therefore is in a reading program; but the homework she brings home is crazy. I feel it is my repsonsibility as her mom to teach her. But then on the other hand when my son needs help with 7th grade algebra and I can't help him then he just doesn't do it; or waits until the next day and then gets counted off part of the grade for not having it completed. Really; how is this not my responsbility as their one and only parent to help them. Please give me some solid advice I can use to help me gain control and not feel stressed and how to I pawn some of the responsiblity on them. It has greatly affected our relationship and our household is constantly in uproars; mornings are especially tough.

Comment By : Mommyof1b2g

Loved it! Stacey Smith, MD St LouisMO Psychiatrist

Comment By : Dr. Stacey Smith

Great suggestions Debbie! With three teens in the house I need this daily practice. It goes along with choosing The Empowerment Dynamic over the Drama Triangle. I would much rather be a creator, challenger or coach with my kids than one of the victim roles.

Comment By : kathy

Unfortunately if my child is late for school, and does it often, I am responsible and will be sent to truant court courtesy of the school system here. SO, it does effect me and I can pay fines. Taking away her stereo has helped cut down missing the bus. Any other suggestions?

Comment By : diploplia

Great article. I am zero to 60 all the time with my 16 year old. I hope I can put this into practice because it is very wise advice.

Comment By : marybangs

* Dear ‘diploplia’: James Lehman, author of the Total Transformation Program says that consequences alone will not change behavior. Consequences are only one part of a system that changes behavior. A much more important part is teaching your child how to problem solve. Use the Problem Solving parenting role [in Lesson 3] to help your daughter learn how to think of what she can do differently to help her get to the bus on time. Help her to identify what skills are needed to solve the problem. Perhaps she needs to learn how to go to bed earlier so she can get up earlier to have more time before school. Or she may need to learn how to be more efficient by organizing her clothes and backpack at night, for example. Use the Limit Setting parenting role to add more structured time to her days; setting limits on free time, homework time, and chore time. James says when kids experience structure and limits, it teaches them that there are rewards and consequences in life. Use the Teaching and Coaching role to teach her how to get organized, and to ‘coach’ her back on track when she’s losing focus, etc. If she improves her behavior and makes it to the bus on time, let her earn a privilege that day. The next day she gets another opportunity to earn a privilege for making it on time. We invite you to call the trained specialists on the Support Line and receive additional ideas from the Total Transformation Program that will help your family. Keep in touch with us. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear 'Mommyof1b2g': We appreciate your sharing with us some of your parenting challenges. I’m sure many parents can identify with feelings of being out of control, stressed and generally overwhelmed. To manage these feelings, make taking time for yourself a priority in your day. This can be hard to do but it’s important. If you don’t restore your energy, you have very little to give to your children. It would make sense for you and the kids to still be having emotional reactions to the death of your ex-husband. It’s hard to know how long a grieving process will take and people do grieve differently. Consider finding a support group for grieving children since your son is experiencing stress because of the loss of his Dad. It may be best not to take on too much just now. You’re correct that it is a parent’s job to teach and it’s the child’s job to learn, but set reasonable expectations for yourself and your kids. For example, children should be spending an average of 10 minutes per grade on homework. There’s a point when continuing to spend time on homework becomes pointless because the kids can’t concentrate anymore. It can be difficult to know how much to challenge our children, to understand what their capabilities are and expect them to put in good efforts. Ask the school to look into the homework issue and perhaps make adjustments to their homework requirements since both kids have learning disabilities. For ideas on helping kids with ADHD do their homework, look at this article by “Dr. Bob” Meyers, author of the Total Focus program: Your ADHD Child and School: Quick Tips on Eliminating Homework Hassles This Year. I’m sure you’ll find that using the techniques in Debbie’s article will be very helpful in learning some skills to remain calm. A good first step is that you are recognizing when you are losing control. This is important. Allow yourself some time to calm before you talk to your kids about making better behavior choices. If you approach the kids when your calm, you will likely find that your consequences and problem solving discussions are much more effective.

Comment By : Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor

Excellent article with clear, practical, usable suggestions.

Comment By : Jill Kristal, Ph.D. clinical psychologist, New York

IT has taken me years not to be the "mad mommy alert". One of the best comments here that I relate to most is that "I feel responsible for any behavior or actions of my kids" maybe because when having psycological awareness about oneself we always relate/blame our parents when going into therapy so of course we then blame ourselves. but in truth we have to realize that we are the vehicles to help our children grow and develop into functioning adults. Just like we come to terms with our own parents recognizing they did their best given what they were given; just as if you can honestly say you are doing the best you can (as you ask your child too) then that is all you can hope for. but what has worked for me and FINALLY I got it - after 13 years, is that I remove myself from the situation and calm down before talking. and I also give myself a pat on the back for every time I am calm in a situation that triggers me. As Ringo Starr said it "it don't come easy"

Comment By : twinsmom

Oh how I needed this today! I find myself reacting way too fast and it reminds me of my mother. I don't want my children to parent like that. It's time for a change. I'm going to work really hard on putting this article to use...remembering to breath and RESPOND; not react.

Comment By : momof6

These are wonderful suggestions - I'm so glad I found this site! I am at my wits end each morning -but after reading this article I have a whole new perspective on how I should react, THANK YOU!

Comment By : happygolucky

I have used this exact analogy of "going from zero to sixty" in how angry my 4 1/2 yr old makes me. It boggles my mind that this child can anger me like no one or nothing else, and it is scary. The hardest part is not getting to "sixty" after repeated (failed) attempts to get him to comply while juggling my 14-month old as well. But even though logically I know that yelling will only cause him to yell (or cry), it is SO HARD to not react that way. I guess it takes practice.

Comment By : FeldFam

Good article but as a parent how to decide on the (box part.)

Comment By : jennifer

* To “jennifer”: You ask a great question. It can be difficult to determine what belongs in the different boxes. As Debbie points out in the article, it’s really about determining what you are each responsible for. Another great way of looking at it is as a parent, you’re responsible for helping your child learn the skills needed to be successful as an adult. Once you have taught your child how to do something, it then becomes his responsibility and goes into his box. An example Debbie uses in her article Learned Helplessness: Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child? is tying his shoes. Once you’ve taught your child to tie his shoes, it becomes his responsibility and is no longer in your box. This doesn’t mean you can’t still offer help and guidance when your child is struggling with an issue. It does mean not taking over and doing things for your child he’s able to do for himself. I hope this has helped to clarify the concept. We encourage you to check out some of the other articles on Empowering Parents. Here are a couple you may find interesting: Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy & Temper, Temper: Keeping Your Cool When Kids Push Your Buttons. We wish you the best. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Great article. Great help. I think it is the «blaming thing» that prevents me from being a better parent. Have 16 year old twins, and both are strongly testing my parenting capabilities. One with his choices of friends and attitutes and «wildness», the other by confronting us with every single sentence, orientation, order, comment we make. I'll give it a try on focusing less on the blaming thing and more on clarifying what my true responsabilities are (as opposed to their responsabilities). Thks

Comment By : lost61

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