Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make  You Crazy

Does your child’s behavior make you crazy? The truth is, there’s no such thing as anxiety-free anything—let alone anxiety-free parenting. You worry about your child’s behavior, health, attitude and relationships. You’re anxious about how he’s going to turn out and if he’ll have success in life, and yet you’re told over and over to “be calm.” “Calm?!” you scream. “How am I supposed to be calm when my child doesn’t do what I say, talks back and has a bad attitude?” You might also be thinking, “How else can I get her attention?” In saner moments, you might agree that it would be nice to have a calm home and peaceful relationships, but feel like it’s an impossibility.

"Understand that when you need something from your children, you become vulnerable to them because they don’t have to give it to you."

This is a common response to the idea of being a calm parent. While part of us might love the idea because we don’t like yelling and saying things we regret when we’re mad at our kids, another part of us might simply not believe it’s possible to be calm when our kids are pushing our buttons. That’s why we often resort to screaming or other types of reactions with our kids. For many of us, the only way we believe we can calm our own stress or feel validated is by getting our kids to behave the way we want them to.

Related: Tired of yelling, nagging and screaming? How to be a calmer parent.

Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: when you do this, you become so over-focused on getting your kids to give you what you need that you become under-focused on soothing yourself. In effect, you’re putting the power to calm yourself down in the hands of your children.  That’s when you begin to feel needy, and say things like, “I need you to stop bugging your brother. I need you to talk nicely to me. I need you to respect your father.”  The implicit message is, “I need you to calm me, validate me, reassure me because I don’t know what the heck to do.”

Understand that when you need something from your children, you become vulnerable to them because they don’t have to give it to you.  That’s when you begin to feel overwhelmed and powerless, because you’ve handed that power to your kids. Your anxiety goes way up, and you feel out of control, so you try to gain control over your kids. And as your anxiety increases, so does your reactivity. You react to your anxiety by yelling, hovering, controlling, ignoring, giving in, criticizing, and blaming. You try to control your child—and in his own way, he’ll fight back. At that point you’ve lost sight of him and of yourself. You’re trying desperately to manage your distress in the only ways you know how, but these ways are not working; they simply cause heightened tension, more power struggles and acting out. Soon, everyone in the family is acting from anxiety and not from thoughtfulness. The power struggle begins and seems to never end. This is the reason why it’s so important for you to learn the skill of becoming a calm parent.

Related: Stop getting caught in power struggles with your child.

Do You Feel Responsible for Your Child’s Success in Life?

When you believe you’re responsible for how your child turns out, you put a huge amount of pressure on yourself, because you’ve given yourself an impossible task. It’s part of the reason why you get anxious, reactive and mad at your kids. But remember, anxiety breeds reactivity and calm breeds calm.

 “How else am I going to get my child to behave and act like a good citizen?” you ask. “If I don’t get him to do it, who will? And how can I be calm when he’s not calm?”  The way you will get him there is by getting the focus where it belongs—off of him and onto you.

Here are some ways to stop being an anxious parent and start being a calm one:

1) Make being calm your number one goal. Most of us have had a boss at one time or another who infuriated them. When dealing with this person, how did you keep your cool? As much as you would have liked to scream at your boss, you probably kept it together, because you didn’t give yourself permission to lash out. This is the first and most important step: Remind yourself that losing it is never allowed.

2) Don’t make your child’s behavior about you. When you react as if your child’s behavior is about you, then it becomes about you.  But her behavior is her choice—how  you decide to respond to it is always your choice. This is where you have control—over yourself, and no one else. The bottom line is that your child’s behavior is ultimately hers to decide.  It is not about you.

3) Always decide how you will behave as a parent, no matter how your child chooses to behave. Your child doesn’t control your behavior, but sometimes if you’re not careful, you’ll act as if he does. If you’re looking for your child’s validation, then you’ve put him in control of you. Remind yourself of the following:  “No one can validate me but me.”

4) Turn your focus on yourself. Focus on your own behavior, not on your child’s. Part of this is learning ways to better manage your emotions. When you get focused on your life and your goals, you’ll have more connection and influence over your child.

5) Put your “thinking self” in the driver’s seat and put your emotions in the passenger seat. Make decisions from your head instead of from your fleeting emotions. Most importantly, know the difference between the two—are you reacting to your child out of anger, or are you thinking through your responses first and calmly telling him what you’ve decided? Let your emotions inform you, but don’t allow them to take over the steering wheel.  This is the best way to thoughtfully decide how you want to lead your family.

Take Time for Yourself

Remember, you have the right to take time for yourself. You don’t have to answer your child immediately with a knee-jerk reaction if something makes you upset. Take the time to figure it out.

A thoughtful response always starts with pausing, thinking, and then asking yourself “How do I want to handle this?” Your goal is to problem solve with your child, but it’s hard to get there if you’re upset. Take some time first to figure out what’s bothering you the most. Ask yourself, “Why am I so upset? What’s being triggered here for me?”  Recognize what’s pulling you in different directions. Use whatever it takes to get clarity on what’s happening with your child versus what’s happening with you. The closer you can be to “What does my child really need in this situation?”  the better you can help him.

What you can—and can’t—change about your child

You can change how you react to your child, but you can’t change him. Remember, it’s not about changing your child, it’s about changing yourself and how you react to him. The process of attempting to change someone else is actually flawed from the start. Instead, recognize that you have to change yourself, which means getting your anxiety in check, managing your emotions, being an observer of yourself, and knowing what’s being triggered for you.

I like to think of parenting as being similar to leadership in an organization. If you have an immature leader running an organization, it’s not going to be very good leadership. The more that leader is his own person and acts in fair and respectable ways, the better everybody’s going to do. It’s the same thing with parenting. One question I always ask clients is, "What do you want to do in this situation as a responsible parent?" Sometimes you might back off, and sometimes you might set a firmer limit with your child. Essentially, you're creating a boundary for yourself. What will you put up with? What's your bottom line? The key is to take a clear approach in what you will do as a responsible parent.

Related: Parent the child you have--not the child you wish you had.

Look at who your child is naturally. You’re not going to change a zebra into a leopard. You can help your child stretch a little bit and work on her skills. If she’s very outgoing and reactive, she may have to be reined in. If she’s very introverted, she may have to stretch a little bit.  While you can’t change your child’s personality, you can influence her toward better behavior by calmly giving thoughtful consequences and setting limits.

When you shift your way of doing things and become a calm parent, you’ll shift your whole family system. Think of it this way: somebody can work for a boss and be terrible, and then work for another boss and be great. That worker’s personality hasn’t necessarily changed—rather, the boss/employee dynamic has changed. The same is true with your child. If you stop focusing on what’s wrong with your child and instead focus on what you need to change in yourself, you’re on your way.

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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.


very helpfull and will keep referring to this as many times as needed.

Comment By : Jamie

Nicely written advice on what not to say, "I need you..." So I'm hooked, and I read through the whole article and don't get one item of advice on what to actually say in those circumstances... Aargh. I can follow all the how to control your emotions, how about a couple suggestions on what to say instead?

Comment By : Tired

The idea is spot on that we are making the child's behavior OUR problem and that won't work but the answer is NOT to remove expectations and just accept the "leopard spots". Yes we do have to work with the child we have; thats great advice but IMO the key is to make behavioral problems that crop up, the CHILDS problem and not the Parents! Parents must establish guidelines and rules of behavior and children can either choose to comply or not but when they choose not to, they are also choosing the consequences. Children need and actually love boundaries! Its a little counter-intuitive but its a big part of how they learn a sense of identity and learn to respect other's boundaries. Don't back off from this hard problems but instead learn to deal with them properly (calmly and peacefully but firmly) all the while teaching the children to own their own behaviors. There are many books on this topic of boundaries and how to calmly and peacefully set them. $.02

Comment By : David Yoakley

I have learned to be calm with my anxious,fearful, angry child.Now, how do I not just give up.

Comment By : FairyMom

I do get in a screaming match with my daughter. My husband keeps telling me to be clam. I try very hard and then loose it, sometimes. Will just have to try very, very hard. This article is real helpful. Will refer to it many times, I'm sure.

Comment By : S. Neill

Very good advice to all us parents. Calmness is the key to effective discipline.

Comment By : momof2boys

As a child psychotherapist I believe it is important to focus on 'heartfelt appreciation' as opposed to infractions that can be quickly dealt with. By empowering the child with your heartfelt appreciation you are meeting his urgent need for self esteem, feeling of self pride and setting up a wonderful way of 'growing up a positive rewarding child' Therapy that only can focus on controlling negativity in the child operate to cause low self esteem, negative and dis-empowering feelings. What do you want your child to grow up to be 'a follower' or a 'leader' ? Respected or just controlled? Best Wishes JG Child Psychotherapist. Empowering the Child.

Comment By : Joseph27.

The thing that helps me the most is the quote "You don't have to attend every fight you are invited to."

Comment By : Church

Very helpful, but what about the times when your child must do what he's told right now. Example: carpool ride will be here any minute and he's not dressed, doesn't have shoes on, hasn't brushed teeth... maybe he can go to school with bad breath but he must be wearing clothes and shoes and making his ride wait is over the top rude and inconsiderate. Basically, when his timely behavior directly effects others outside our family I DO have to address this right now. His behavior isn't about me but it will be if I ever have to send his ride to school w/o him. Then we will all be late. Those are the times I blow my top. Any suggestions?

Comment By : NanCY KEY

Thank you for this article. I really needed this today. My 8 years old has been driving me crazy and this puts it into perspective. It's up to me to make the change.

Comment By : dh

My frustration is what takes over when I get angry. I have 4 boys 7, 6, 5 and 4years old. Everyday, there is fighting, arguing, yelling and overall active kids that seem to have taken over our household. As a result I've resorted to yelling, and because what you give off is what you get back, that is what I've taught them to do. I take the majority of the responsibility, because I have been the one who should have more aware that this was bound to happen. I try everyday to be calm, but it lasts for the first several outbursts and then it's gone by afternoon. I am so thankful for the articles that you have on here! I will keep trying, for the good of the kids!

Comment By : crazydayz

Dear NanCY KEY, You ask a good question here and I'll bet it's one that a lot of parents can relate to. Everything seems harder when you are in a time crunch, when you are in public, when there are other friends involved, or when your child running late means you'll be late for work. It makes sense that the extra pressure puts you over the top. Here's something to keep in mind though, even with the extra pressure: blowing your top might not get your son's shoes on any faster, and in some cases, the arguing could actually slow things down. Not to mention that if it's happening regularly, it will take a lot out of you. Something you might try is to take some time to think about the pattern that you have described here and make a plan when things are calm for how you might make some changes. An example might be simplifying your morning schedule by setting aside clothes, shoes, and taking showers the night before. You can also let your son know what his responsibilities will be when it comes to getting ready and what the consequences will be if his choices cause the family to be late. Remember too that even though it might feel disrespectful and rude, your son is probably not trying to be that way. Make your focus about your son developing skills to help himself be on time. This can take some time and some practice. In addition, make a plan for how you will respond when, despite your best efforts, your son is running late. You don't have control over your son's choices, but you do have control over how you respond. This other article by Debbie Pincus will give you some other ideas about setting up a calm plan. Please keep in touch and let us know how it's going!

Comment By : Becky Staples, M.S./Ed.S, Parental Support Line Advisor

This is one of THE best parenting articles I've ever read. It offers positve information on WHAT a parent CAN do...and incorporate into daily living. Thanks!

Comment By : Kirby

NanCY KEY I can sooooo relate to you! What you described is every school morning for us. I feel baffled that my daughter doesn't care she is going to be late! It goes beyond going to school its going anywhere and I'm like you it is rude to be late and keep people waiting. Staying calm in that situation is so difficult but my husband says let her be late for school and let her deal with it. Easier said then done.

Comment By : citygirl

Super article - and really true - we as parents have to stop giving our kids the power. BUT: how on earth do you get them to do the dishes? Mine make a huge mess, then they laugh and talk half the night, even though I have to get up at 5 am and can't sleep. I have warned them, screamed at them, tried talking calm to them - nothing works, they just don't care! Many times I have felt like moving out! I have nobody I can send them to, we have no family, and my friends don't want them. Now I'm on medication for my heart because of major stress. HELP please, what do I do???

Comment By : Andrea

To NanCY KEY - Yes, I do have a suggestion. I have three boys, all but raising them myself. Tell him the night before what is expected of him, and what the consequences will be if he is not ready (whatever his " money" is). Get up earlier than he does. Check on him every 5 minutes or so. Tell him his ride will be here in 10 minutes, 5 minutes.... After a few days, he'll get it.

Comment By : Rick

* To ‘Tired’: I can understand your frustration here. The really hard part is that there is no “right” thing to say. The important thing is that you don’t say anything right away- don’t let that knee-jerk reaction take place. Instead, walk away from your child, do something to help yourself calm down and feel better, then think of a plan once you are calm. That plan should include how you want to act and appear to your child when you engage again. It should also include how you will motivate your child to do what has been asked and hold them accountable if they don’t, rather than how you will control them or make them do something. Your goal is to be in control of yourself and how you respond to an irresponsible choice by your child. It might be something like, “I’ve asked you several times to pick up your room. Is there some reason you haven’t done it yet?” Listen, and then you might say, “Alright, well I expect it to be done by 4pm. If it’s not, your computer privileges will be on hold until you’re finished.” It might be helpful to review the Consequences articles under the “Expert Articles” tab for more ideas about how to hold your child accountable. Good luck to you and take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* Andrea: It sounds like you are feeling incredibly exhausted by your kids’ behavior. It would be helpful for you to establish some simple structure around getting the dishes done to motivate your kids to do them and to hold them accountable if they don’t. For example, you might establish a 6pm cut-off time. If the dishes are not done by 6pm (be specific about what “done” means), then there will be no cell phone access until the next time the dishes are done on time. So it’s not about controlling your kids and making them do what you want them to do, it’s about finding a response to their behavior that makes them thirsty to do the dishes. If they don’t do their dishes on time tonight, that’s their choice but the phone is off limits. If they get them done on time tomorrow, the phone will go back on. Stick with this consistently, and remember that the cell phone is just an example here—feel free to use a different privilege. You could do something similar at night—quiet time is 10pm, if they’re talking and laughing afterward there will be no computer the next day and they can try again to follow quiet time hours tomorrow to get the computer back. Here are a couple more articles about chores if you’d like some additional ideas:
Kids, Chores and Responsibilities:5 Questions to Help Them Get on Track
"I'll Do It Later!"6 Ways to Get Kids to Do Chores Now

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Thinking of Andrea, and maybe this will help: Parenting is the most challenging, and most rewarding career, I think. Something we have used for our children to do their chores, is: pleasantly set the kitchen timer for a reasonable amount of time and then say, "The timer is set for 20 minutes for you to do the dishes; if they are not done, then I'll add another chore:)" They may protest, but stick to works. Do not raise your voice, do not repeat your instructions. Our children protested, but now they "race" the timer to see how fast they can get done. My friend and I (she has 10 children, I have 7)have done this, and none of our teenage children have trouble getting a job. I think it's because they learned to work diligently when young. Show/demonstrate how the job is done and then assign that to them. This will take time, when we were going through this, I spent several hours every Saturday morning working next to the children, teaching how, but chores are teaching, training, and then seeing them help you....the rewards are worth it, you will do less housework, and they will learn life skills. Remind them that as adults they will be working 5 - 6 days/week, so this is just a little preparation. For the child that stays awake talking (depending on their age, maybe you could separate them and then put them in their own bed later?) If older, I would say, "I'm sorry you decided to talk instead of laying quiet and getting the sleep you need, you'll have to go to bed an hour earlier tonight." The next night if they refuse to go earlier, I'd turn off all lights, close the drapes, go in my bedroom, close the door and read, no interaction.

Comment By : mother of seven:)

This website has been my lifeline. I am a single mum, who has raised my now 16 yr old with absoluetly no support, emotional or financial support from her father. She doesnt even know him, his choice. I tried reaching to him for help, with no response. I have raised this child with blood, sweat and tears, and over the 16yrs, neglected my own life as I was tooo busy trying to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. We had a close, lovely relationship, until she turned 16. I saw my lovely daughter, turn into this, lying, manipulative, selfish person. During the last year, I was the victim of her bullying, manipulation, to the point, that I would cry myself to sleep, many nights considering to end the pain, and end my life.. My faith in God stopped me. Since then, I am learning from your articles and empowering myself.I feel much stronger and her tactics are not getting the results like before. I feel strong feelings of dislike for her behaviour, and really feel like our relationship is destroyed. I am a good, decent person, working very hard tp provide for us. I dont have college or university, but even then I secured a honest job... I feel like she is ungrateful, takes it for granted and as you say , entitled to do little, keep her room, part of my space as a pigsty. More and more, I want to get her away from me, I am seriously thinking to walk away from all the drama. There is soo much negativity in my home, every single plant dies. When she goes to her friends place some weekends, I love the peace, cleanliness and calm in my home and space. More and more, I want to reclaim my life. If she wants to be so adult, Frankly I dont give a damn long as she does her drama away from me . Please tell me, why am I feeling so strongly to want to take MY LiFe back. All my life, I have lived life on my terms, now I am being contolled by a 16 yr old. I just feel like packing house, a suitcase, put her somewhere where is safe, maybe a relative, school, and get far away from the drama. Normally, I am a happy, positive person. People always comment on my cheerful.and pleasant attitude, yet this child brings out a very ugly part of me with her. Please comment on why I am feeling so strongly.about Wanting out, and as if her behaviour has killed alot of the love I had for her

Comment By : Chanel

* To Chanel: It can be very hard to recognize these strong feelings of dislike toward your own child. It is hard to like someone who is disrespectful of your space, and who is bullying and manipulating you. As strange as it sounds, it is a good first step to recognize, and to own, these agonizing feelings, rather than trying to deny them and feeling guilty about them. The good news is, you have ultimate control over your feelings, and your responses to your daughter. We are pleased to hear that you have found the articles here on EP to be helpful. It can be very useful to get support from other parents who are experiencing the same issues as you. A good place to start is 211 is an informational service that can help to connect you with resources in your area. You can also reach them by calling 1 (800) 273-6222. I am including a few articles I think you might find helpful: "Sometimes I Don't Like My Child." & A Message from Janet Lehman: Does Parenting Feel Like a Thankless Job? (Then Read This.) Good luck to you as you continue to work through this-we know this isn’t easy.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

This is a very good article and I agree.I know how to remain calm...I have a ton of patience but what I need to know is what TO say when my son doesn't listen and follow directions instead of what not to do & say. That's where my frustration comes in. He is O.D.D. & a.d.h.d.(showing traits of bi-polar) and I am at my wits end with him. I try not to resort to anger/yelling/spanking because it seems to fuel his desire for contention in the house. I have tried taking away privileges and he still refuses to do his chores. For example he will behave all week long in order to get his d.s. privileges but when it comes to cleaning his room in which he's trashed he outright will not do it. I have tried taking privileges away, I am about to just take everything out of his room since he cannot pick up his own mess. I am just frustrated I need advice how how to get good responses from him. Sometimes it seems like the only way to get him to do anything is to be mean but then later he will act out worse the next time so I have stopped yelling at him. What do you do when they are so strong willed that they are even willing to suffer the natural consequences just to be oppositional?

Comment By : MNBC

* To “MNBC”: Consequences can be a tricky part of parenting, especially when it doesn’t seem as if the consequences are even working. Many parents we speak with on the Parental Support Line have similar concerns regarding consequences. I can certainly understand your frustration. It’s great you are able to remain calm in the moment; that’s something many parents struggle with. Remaining calm in the moment can go a long way towards keeping a situation from escalating. Another thing we would recommend is to avoid giving consequences in the moment. As parents, we often think giving a consequence in the moment will make our child stop and think about what they’re doing. Unfortunately, that usually isn’t the case and it will more often than not cause the situation to escalate further. Instead, we would suggest using direct statements, setting the limit and then walking away. For example, if your son is being verbally disrespectful to you, you can say something like “It’s not OK to talk to me that way” and then walk away. Keep in mind this is only how you’re going to deal with the behavior in the moment. You are going to address his behavior after things have calmed down through problem solving and a task-oriented consequence. Here are a couple of articles you may find helpful for your situation: Parenting ODD Children and Teens: How to Make Consequences Work and The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems.” We appreciate you sharing your story with us and wish you luck as you and your family work through this challenge.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Just read this really good article, will use these strategies for trigger times i.e getting ready for school and going to bed.

Comment By : paula

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