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What’s one of the keys to avoiding constant fights with your child? Believe it or not, it’s the same skill that will help you through any crisis situation—your ability to remain calm. When your child is upset, anxious or angry, keeping your cool is half the battle. It’s a way for you to put out the fire by throwing water on the flames, rather than fan it by adding more fuel from your own emotional tank.

The important thing to remember is that all emotions are acceptable, but all behaviors are not. When we don’t accept our own emotions, we act them out with our kids and our family members in unhealthy ways.

I understand that staying calm when dealing with kids is much, much easier said than done—especially when you have a child who acts out. Knowing you should be calm doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to do it. But why? We know the right thing to do, but in the midst of the battle our emotional brain gets stirred up and we lose sight of our logical brain. When our brain becomes overloaded with emotion, “reactivity” begins. Reactivity can come in the form of yelling, screaming, and shutting down, none of which will help you deal with any kids, let alone difficult ones.

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As we all know, parenting is a very emotional experience. Our kids and our interactions with them can trigger our own feelings of helplessness, frustration, confusion, hurt, disappointment, and rage, to name a few. These feelings can quickly stir us up or leave us feeling overwhelmed. We are each vulnerable to different situations, and each “trigger” we have requires us to face ourselves, our limitations, our shame, our fears, our childhood insecurities, and the less-than-perfect qualities we’d prefer to keep tucked away.

Our children, just by being kids, can trigger painful emotions in us. Our reaction to these emotions can cause us to make poor parenting decisions. At those moments when we are trying to protect ourselves, we don’t necessarily have our children’s best interests in mind. When stirred up, we often do not speak kindly or calmly to them—and we often regret it later. Guilt follows. The important thing to remember is that all emotions are acceptable, but all behaviors are not. When we don’t accept our own emotions, we act them out with our kids and our family members in unhealthy ways. When our feelings control us, rather than us being able to control them, we have a much harder time helping our kids mature and deal with their life. The key is to remain calm and not respond with a knee-jerk reaction when your child pushes your buttons.

Here are some ways to be a calm parent when dealing with your kids.

Change your perspective. If you can think differently, you will be less angry at your child. Our kids can make us annoyed, mad, frustrated—sometimes on a daily basis. But remember that most of the time they are acting their age. Our annoyance is understandable but it isn’t about them, it’s about us. It is about our patience, tolerance (or lack of it), attitude and outlook. When your child swears at you, it’s hard to keep this in perspective—your first thought is to feel angry, disappointed and blaming of his behavior. And, don’t get me wrong, he should be made to face consequences. But in the back of your mind, remember—your child is doing this because he’s a kid. Your job is to guide him by making sure he takes responsibility and makes amends.

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The developmental task of teens is to experiment with new roles and relationships. It’s scary and frustrating for us, but this is what is natural for their development. Breaking rules and testing limits helps kids to learn the laws of sowing and reaping. It helps them learn from their own experiences. This is natural and normal. Our job is to guide them to better behavior by offering them natural consequences, not to blame them for their behavior.

I am not suggesting we allow for bad behavior, I am suggesting that you try not to be mad at them for their developmentally-appropriate actions—even if those actions are annoying or disappointing. Your frustration may be about your own lack of patience which is a problem that is yours to figure out, not theirs.

Finding ways of being less angry at our kids is important. If we take responsibility for our own feelings and actions, they will be more likely to be able to do the same. Processing, soothing, anticipating and understanding our own feelings is our job. If we blame our kids for our feelings and reactions, they will learn to blame others for their actions and will not learn how to take responsibility for themselves.

Identify your feelings. When you are about to let off steam, pause and identify your feelings. Is it irritation, frustration, hurt that’s bothering you? Name it; identify it as your own. Say to yourself, “When I see my kid doing X, Y or Z, I feel ____ because I ____.” For example, “When I see my kid not helping around the house, I feel furious because I feel ineffective as a parent. I’m scared he will never be responsible and guilty that I have not done my job.” Then ask yourself what you need to work through within yourself and what proper feedback you need to give to your child. In other words, be a responsible parent by processing what belongs to and then decide what guidance you need to give to your child. In this scenario you might say to yourself, “I need to think about how I can improve my effectiveness as a parent or else I need to accept that I have done all that I can. I have to deal with my anxiety about my child’s future and find ways to resolve my own guilt.”

If we acknowledge and accept our own feelings, we can start doing the work of soothing them, understanding them, changing them, processing them and releasing them. Our painful feelings will not spill onto others. It requires us to be mature enough to embrace the feelings that we keep trying to hide. It is our job as parents to identify our underlying feelings of fear, inadequacy or shame—or whatever feelings you keep hoping won’t get triggered. When they do get triggered, notice how tempting it is to blame those that trigger them. Remember, our kids trigger feelings already within us—they don’t cause the feeling.  It’s our responsibility to work out our own feelings rather than to blame them on our kids.

Pause, breathe, think. Model for your child how to deal with difficult feelings. Say to her, “I’m frustrated right now, so I’m going to take a few deep breaths, calm myself down and figure out how to best deal with this situation. We can talk later.” When you feel red-hot inside, that’s your internal signal to take some deep breaths and think how to best and most effectively deal with the situation. Not only are you calming yourself down, but you are teaching your kids how to do the same. These tools of pausing, breathing and thinking are effective for a good reason. When you are physically or emotionally threatened, your adrenaline rises. You might be emotionally threatened when your child won’t listen to you and you don’t know what to do. The body reads this as a threat and prepares for “fight or flight” by draining the energy from your brain and putting it into your muscles. This is why we all end up saying things we later regret—and why it is necessary to use the calming tools of pausing, breathing and thinking. Without them, you won’t be able to solve the problems you are confronted with effectively because you won’t have access to the part of the brain that can make good decisions.

Let go of worry and focus on what’s good. Understand that worrying about your child is a negative act. Worrying also makes your child anxious because he comes to believe that there is something within him to be worried about. He becomes more nervous. Yet how do you not worry about a difficult kid who is making poor choices all the time? Our imagination runs wild with images of all the worst possible outcomes happening. But it’s important to realize that the more you worry and have negative images floating around in your brain, the more a neural pathway is formed, making worry easier and easier. So you worry more, not less. Therefore, try to fill your imagination with positive outcomes, rather than negative ones. After all, you don’t know the outcome anyway. Imagining things turning out positively will help you feel less stressed. When you are less stressed, your brain functions better, you feel better and you have more of a chance of guiding your child more effectively. Positive thinking can inadvertently cause a positive outcome. And finally, feeling anger (or any reactivity) is detrimental to warm, close interactions. Repeated negative interactions over time can destroy good relationships.

Calm is contagious in a family. If you learn how to be calm, you will create a calm family. You will also be showing your children how to calm down in any given situation—an important life skill for everyone to master.

Related Content:
Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child Makes You Angry
How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids: Use These 10 Tips

About

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.

Comments (25)
  • Cs
    "Calm is contagious in a family. If you learn how to be calm you will create a calm family." I hate to tell you but this is not always true. Some children cannot be molded. At least not by their parents!!! No matter what is done she will scream andMore act up because(I don't know why), It's almost like the calmer and kinder you are with them they feed off that and use it against you. Sometimes, truth is, there is no cure. Some situations just can't be fixed!!
  • joni

    Positive thinking can be really hard to maintain when negative feedback from peers/ other parents/ educators keeps pouring in. It is not that we care more about what others say than about our child's safety or well-being; rather it is that the world he is entering seems to complain about the same personality traits of his that also bring us to our wits' end as parents.

    Our younger son, 7 years old, borders on plain defiance, and often causes problems by acting stubborn and immature for his age. He dismisses responsibility for acting bad, be it little naughty things a much younger kid would do, or impulsive hitting when feeling hurt or unreciprocated in any way. Even hits his elder brother (11yo) most of the day, to which the latter has a hard time not responding physically. Our elder son is luckily of a more serene disposition, thinking and acting wise by nature, but even so arbitrating conflicts between them is a pain in the neck, because we fear making things worse by overprotecting him or being unfair to the little one. Don't get me wrong, our younger son is an affectionate, ourgoing, perky kid, brilliant at schoolwork/ homework (though his first reaction is always to nag about HW, just like he does for almost anything at first), but often ends up a real nuisance as he has turned out hard to "control". He has to have things his own way and doesn't seem to respect other people's wants and needs, not even his immediate family's. We have tried numerous ways of dealing with his behavior: time-outs, grounding him from things he likes doing for specific amounts of time, getting him interested in out-of-school activities like acting, dancing (which he loves)... you name it, nothing seems to work in the long run. He apologizes, seemingly in all honesty (I feel it inside that he really feels remorse about what he has done), and he may then be a real angel for longs strands of time, or perhaps hours/days later he reverts to same/ negative behavior. Quite an unpredictable child, which makes me feel very insecure, though I have trained myself to keep a poker face about it and remain calm at all times without panicking (in his younger years an added fear/stress of ours was that he would hurt himself badly because of the way he defied danger all the time, which he has fortunately kinda grown out of, but not entirely).

    My millior-dollar question would be: how can one constantly keep thinking pink when everything seems so hopeless? Note that he is a very physical person overall, tends to hug and kiss a lot (always has), a bit over-dependent on me ("mom" is his favorite word, still spurts it out a zillion times a day and drives me nuts), does not relate all that well to his dad (who is also to blame as his patience threshold is a bit too low, in any case much lower than mine)... I don't know, I have tried ways of pushing dad and son to bond a little bit more in non-aggressive ways (not necessarily through sport, for instance, or wrestling like lions on the carpet, which they love doing: i just try to get them to TALK!), but otherwise I am almost constantly overwhelmed with the weight of a kid who doesn't seem to grow up and take full responsibility for his actions. I mean of course that he should act his age, which he doesn't in my opinion. PLUS I often feel guilty about not having enough stamina/ strength/ time to deal with my other kid, who was never as hard to deal with in the first place. It's not fair for him, either. All in all, as a couple we have grown too tired of our little one's "difficultness", and this unfortunately does not foster good parenting, though we try not to forget that it all may be just the way he is made, and love and cherish him as he is. We try not to be judgmental of him, but of his actions/ oversights. We have tried focusing on positive feedback, but these days it feels like hardly anything he does is worthy of praise (quite the contrary). Add to this that we have no outside help with kids or housework, it's just the two of us and we both have to work. What keeps us going as a family is that, looking back, he HAS made progress (he used to be an almost entirely impossible kid when he was 3 or 4), but there are times when there's no reasoning with him whatsoever. He is in constant need of stimuli, which are hard to come by when you are exhausted from an already over-active kid (we have ruled out any suspicions of ADHD or variations thereof, which made us happy but then again brought us back to square one).

    Hope this makes sense, as I'm writing this in an emotional turmoil, which probably isn't a very good idea. Also hope I've used the right words in a limited space (could write a book if u let me!). Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, and for your helpful article.

    • Pat876
      I read your post and you seem to do what i have never been able to do adequately... describe my fustration with my 5 yr old son. Your description is so exact. He hugs and kisses and say I love you , so ethjng that i thought was so sweetMore buf now he roes it so often (every 5 mins) i doubt even means it. Everything is a problem and whats fustrating is its the simpliest things (brushing his teeth, taking a bath, counting from 1-6 tor homework) all things he can do with ease but what really triggers me is he seems to behave far more difficult with these simlle tasks just to see me fustrated. He is only 5... are these red flags for something far more serious. Im a single mom and none of the other kids from his school or otherwise behave like this.
  • tiffpierce03
    Thank you for this article. It was very enlightening to me. I have a daughter who just turned 8. She is a very difficult child to parent. She had no empathy for others and only thinks about herself. She has a hard time even having friends because sheMore treats others so bad. She withholds love from my husband and I and sometimes will not let us hug and kiss her. She's so brutally honest it's hard to take. My husband does not deal with her well and usually things end in fights and tears because of his ineffective parenting that he later regrets. This article made me stop and think that maybe the problem is not so much my daughters as it is us as parents. We need help! We are at wits end and I'm worried things will get worse the older she gets. I love her so much and would do anything to better understand and parent her effectively. We have three other children and parenting them is easy. I've thought about therapy for her but not sure that would even help. Please advise. I need to parent her differently then my other children that I know.
  • isparenting

    to be honest, a little hard to recognize our own feelings and changed perspectiveswhen less commitment to myself.

    This article really brighten my thinking to improve, become better parents. I learned a lot for the parenting today, especially on your site.

    Thank you for sharing, greetings

  • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

    preschool teacher

    This sounds like a very frustration situation. Because our

    website is aimed at helping parents develop more effective ways of addressing

    acting out behavior, we are limited in the coaching and advice we are able to

    offer in this situation. It would be best to speak with your building

    administrator/director about this issue. S/he would be in the best position to

    offer specific techniques you could use that would be in line with your

    school’s philosophy and protocol. We wish you the best of luck moving forward.

    Take care.

  • Momtogirls
    please help me to deal with a 6 year old. she is stubborn every morning when she have to be prepared to go to school it is a fight. i dont know what might be a problem. because at a young age of 2 she once lost hearing but sheMore went through all treatment and went to speeech thearapist. i end up loosing my temper. what can i do?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Momtogirls

      Maintaining a consistent morning routine can be challenging,

      especially when it seems as though your child pushes back at every turn. We

      have a couple articles that give great tips for how to get control back in the

      morning: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/our-morning-routine-isnt-working-6-ways-to-fix-it-now/ & https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-kid-wont-get-out-of-bed-stop-the-morning-madness-now/. I hope you find the

      information in these articles helpful for your situation. Be sure to check back

      if you have any further questions. Take care.

  • Lyrry
    I have a 9 year-old son who refuses to study resulting in his grades being too low he might get extra summer classes, or worse, repeat his grade. I have done what I can even giving him "rewards" but to no avail. What can I do?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Lyrry

      I can hear your distress. It’s understandable you would be

      worried your son may have to go to summer school or repeat a grade because he’s

      not keeping up with his schoolwork. Unfortunately, some kids need to experience

      the natural consequences of their actions in order for them to be motivated to

      make different choices in the future. James Lehman talks about how letting your

      child fail can actually have a positive outcome in his article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/why-you-should-let-your-child-fail-the-benefits-of-natural-consequences/.

       It’s not easy to watch your child fail. If you’ve done everything you can

      to motivate your son and he’s still choosing not to complete his schoolwork,

      there’s probably not much more you can do to help him though. Best of luck to

      you and your son moving forward. Take care.

      • Lyrry
        DeniseR_ParentalSupport thank you so much for the answer. It enlightened me. :)
        • David
          Lyrry DeniseR_ParentalSupport What you should do is let him realize the consequences of what would happen if he has a bad grade. Don't try to explain it to him with words because children think that's boring and unhelpful.
  • Stephaniedelacruz
    I have a,four n half year old that I don't know what to do anymore. He doesn't not listen at all. He hits and bullies his little brother. He purposely defies me. I try to talk to him it does not work n I wind up spanking him which IMore hate. What do I do?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Stephaniedelacruz

      I can understand your frustration. It can be tough to know

      how to respond to a young child who seems intent on defying you at every turn.

      It may help to know that the behavior you describe isn’t unusual for a 4 year

      old. Your son has limited frustration tolerance and probably lacks effective

      mechanisms for coping with situations that cause him frustration. Spanking

      isn’t an effective way of addressing the behavior because it doesn’t help him

      learn better ways of handling tough situations. We do have several articles

      that focus on parenting younger children. Two in particular you may find

      helpful are https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/hitting-biting-and-kicking-how-to-stop-aggressive-behavior-in-young-children/ &

       https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/attention-seeking-behavior-in-young-children-dos-and-donts-for-parents/. I hope you find

      the information in these articles helpful. Take care.

  • AmyLundbergLeone
    Great article!
  • Linds84
    Hi, I have 6 and 4 yr old boys who refuse to listen. More often than not, it takes their father and i telling them 4-5 times to do something before we get a result, if we even get a result. My husband usually ends up yelling at the boysMore and it puts all of us in a terrible mood. Can anyone send some advice our way as to deal with this?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Linds84

      I can hear how frustrated you are that your boys only seem

      to listen until someone raises their voice or yells. This is a common scenario

      in many households, so, you’re not alone. The goal here is 2 part – taking

      steps to motivate your children to do something the first time they are asked

      while also remaining calm in the face of any defiance. The above article offers

      some great tips for remaining calm.  A couple of other articles you may

      find useful for this situation are  https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/ask-once-and-your-kid-does-it-5-ways-to-make-it-happen/ & https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/tired-of-yelling-at-your-child-stop-screaming-and-start-parenting-effectively/. I

      hope this is useful information for you. Be sure to check back if you have any

      further questions. Take care.

  • Sunimah

    Hai, My Son is 10 yrsold and he is on first stage of adolescent. His behavior pattern is changing drastically. He just gets irritated when I try to advice or tell him somethings.He is good in his studies but seem to be lagging behind slowly.He is getting more attracted and addictive towards gadgets . When we have given time schedule for his game hrs ,he has slightly started hiding things from us.He has become very sensitive also.

    Pls do guide me so that I could handle this in a better way.

  • Kevin

    Hello, I have a Son (5 years old) who doesn't seem to listen to anyone. he isn't overly bad in terms of his behavior, but only does what he wants when he wants. this includes eating. the Doctors say he is healthy and will change when he is ready. One other key is he is very afraid to try anything new and that might be apart of the eating problem. is there a book you would suggest or some direction I should push? I lose sleep over it consistently, but most people feel I am over reacting. any advise would be welcomed.

    Kevin.

    • Darlene EP

      @Kevin 

      The behaviors you describe are

      quite common for a 5 year old boy. That does not make it any less frustrating I

      am sure. I would continue to follow your son’s doctors advice around any food

      or eating issues, as we are not in a position to give you guidance on those

      types of issues. As far as not listening to you in general terms, we recommend

      avoiding power struggles when a child is resistant or noncompliant. Trying to

      make him do something is only going to lead to an argument. Give your son a

      choice and walk away. When you give him a choice, he will have some control

      over the situation and that is more likely to lead to compliance rather than

      trying to get him to do it. Good luck to you as you continue to work through

      this. Take care.

  • Tammy
    My 6 yr old son has autism spectrum disorder, adhd and oppositional defiant disorder..he has been on 6 different medications in a year and a half and nothing seems to work...he is rude,loud,destructive and disrespectful to children and adults...time outs,taking his toys and tv time away and cancelling outdoor eventsMore or trips do not phase him...he is out of control and nothing that I have tried seems to work...I've even had help from people who work with special needs children and they couldn't get him to listen...I'm at my breaking point and I don't know what else to do...can anyone help me
    • mom2sweetboys

      @Tammy 

      @@Tammy  I can relate to you in many ways since my 9 year old was also given many of the labels you mentioned.  After that I went through many emotions including feeling frustrated and failure as a parent.  I was fortunate to find out about RDI, Relationship Development Intervention where our entire family learned how to best help him by setting boundaries but starting to really understand that maybe his behaviors are due to a deficits of social and emotional ability.  He is not a bad child but needs to be taught appropriate ways to deal with his emotions.  The 1st thing we did was to begin spending quality time with him, which believe me was not easy since it seemed like we could never enjoy each other's company and everything always turned sideways.  We needed to learn to start all over again, taking baby steps, finding fun ways to reconnect with him and working very hard to make our family healthy and happy again.  This is our 4th year with RDI and a weekly Consultant that walks us through our different issues. I highly recommend you look into it.  You meet with your consultant and then go home and video tape your experiences with your child and then meet again to discuss how well you dealt with a particular situation.  It is really difficult at first to change your old parenting habits but as you realized that these are the best parenting practices and they work even with kids with ODD, ADHD and ASD you will be very please at how your child can change.

      Other therapist, teachers and adults will come and go, but remember that YOU are the parent, model and bottom line the ONE that will most affect him. Remember he is only 6 you have plenty of time to help him be the best little man that he can be.  Change your attitude towards him and all the labels he has been given.  With love, patience and a new set of tools you can make that little rude, unkind little boy turn into a compassionate, kind, popular little boy in no time at all. I speak from my heart. Best of luck to you.

      Read more: 4 Tools to Help You Stay Calm with Your Difficult Child

    • PietroGhee

      Hi Tammy, your issues sound similar to ours (i.e. my wife and daughter and me). We are trying various methods and a couple of meds to get a grip on situations that can get out of control. Sometimes it works and other times not. I feel your pain, we've all been in some situations with my son that got out of control. I do what I can to remember that he doesn't mean it, can't control the bad things any more than we can, and just do what I can to get through to him, on his level, and get him to see I understand his concern, issue, whatever. In these moments we can connect and I or my wife can bring things back to Earth. Not always, since no one is perfect. He may not respond, though with extreme persistence I find he eventually will. The other times we're human, tired, stressed, whatever, and we don't handle the situation well at all, or we give up too soon. On average though, cracking his barrier and connecting with him has made many improvements and many dire situations much better. As he gets older he has learned some self control, but it will always be a struggle we need to be ready for as much as possible. Our boys are different. Very special in their own way, so just look for that, and enjoy it. If you ever catch yourself wishing your son could be more like someone else's, stop. It ain't gonna happen and you're only hurting yourself with that. The advice from this article is key, and what I've also been trying to practice ever since my unique little gem came along over 7 years ago. It does take that amount of time, and more I'm afraid. You're the one in control of everything and anything you do will be an impact on your son. Own it and do your best. That is all you can do and what he expects, whether he understands it or not. When you can, break away and vent, purge, get it out, you need it! And so does he so he can count on you the next time.

      Hope that is of some help. Stay strong!

  • gmari2682

    I am going to have to read this over and over.  I have four young children (ages 9,7,6 and 5) and my 7 year old son has been difficult since he was born.  Obviously, as an infant it was for different reasons but now he is bigger and he tests me in every way.  His mood (which I describe as EMO) has a huge effect on my mood and makes me parent poorly with all my children. It's exhausting and it causes arguments with my husband and just causes everyone to feel tense and upset.  He is unable to control himself and I find at times, neither can I.

    I brought him to a child psychologist and therapy group two years back and didn't like it. They diagnosed him (5 at the time) as depressed and anxious and wanted to medicate him, I refused.  I don't want to do that but sometimes I feel like there is no other choice!

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