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Losing Your Temper with Your Child? 8 Steps to Help You Stay in Control

By Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

Do you ever struggle with temper tantrums at your house? You know what they involve: yelling, screaming, bad-language, and all-out loss of control until you almost can’t take it anymore and you just want to…put yourself in time out? Yes, I’m talking about our own parental “temper tantrums,” which we’ve all been known to experience at one point or another as we raise our kids. Read on for tips on how to stay in control.

“The first step to look at is why you lose your temper. Understanding your triggers as an adult is just as important as trying to figure out what sets your kids off.”

Children are notorious for bringing out the best in us as parents. There are moments when we find we are better people because of them; we may model better behavior, be more honest, forgiving, caring, and kind. And then there are those moments when our kids bring out the very worst in us. These are the times when we are exhausted, overworked, stressed to levels we never knew existed — and the next thing we know we are no calmer than a toddler, yelling and screaming, red-faced and enraged. Here’s the truth: losing your temper is a fact of life, one that is very normal, albeit upsetting, when it happens. But there are solutions that can help you stay calm and regain control. Follow these eight steps and you should be able to see a change in your approach very soon.

Step 1: Recognize your triggers.
The first step to look at is why you lose your temper. Understanding our triggers as adults is just as important as trying to figure out what sets our kids off so that we can help them control themselves. As the mother of a proverbial middle child teenager who also has ADD,  and has a hard time controlling his impulses, I know that what triggers me is his bad attitude. When he starts with negativity or backtalk, it’s important for me to take a step back and really focus on how I’m feeling at the moment: my neck tenses, my cheeks feel flushed, and, having a hot temper myself, I can almost taste the words readying themselves to roll off my tongue in response! By recognizing my emotional triggers as well as the physical sensations in my body that are associated with them, I am better equipped to say, “Okay, I know that I’m not going down a good path. Stop.” Some triggers at your house might include your toddler saying “No!” for the one-hundreth time that day, your middle schooler rolling her eyes at you, or your high schooler failing to do their chores…again. When you are able to recognize what frustrates you the most, you are on the path to stopping your temper from boiling over.

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Step 2: Find new ways to communicate.
For most parents, what we feel the worst about after we lose it is how we’ve talked to our child. Too often parents fall into bad communication habits we learned from our own parents when we were growing up. These can include giving our kids the silent treatment, withdrawing from the family, giving overly harsh punishments in the heat of the moment, yelling, saying snide or sarcastic remarks, swearing and name calling. It’s very easy to fall into this pattern, especially when you have a toddler screaming at you or a teenager swearing and getting in your face. But again, it’s important to remember that you are modeling how to deal with anger and frustration for your child, not just in their childhood and adolescence but for when they are adults as well. This is not to say that you can’t express anger, disappointment, or frustration with your child. Sometimes it’s important that our kids know we aren’t happy, but we have to find ways to express our feelings in an appropriate manner. When you are feeling overwhelmed and fear you might resort to less-than-helpful ways to communicate your frustration, finding a way to stay calm is key. (More on that next.)

Step 3: Find your strategies to calm.
Finding a calming strategy that works for you can stop you from losing your temper.  Some ideas are:

  • Walk away (literally): When you find you are about to lose it, walk away from your child.  Not only does this prevent you from starting down the wrong path, it models for your child an appropriate response when they are feeling overwhelmed themselves. For older kids, feel free to say, “You know, I’m not ready to talk to you about this right now so I’m going to be alone for a few moments until I can calm down.”
  • Practice deep breathing: There are many times when I stop mid-sentence, sit down and use deep breathing to calm myself. This makes my teenagers nuts, but it really works. While sitting upright, place both feet on the floor. Place one hand on your abdomen beneath your rib cage. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into the bottom of your lungs, sending the air as low down as you can.  Make sure you are breathing from your abdomen instead of shallow breathing from your chest. If you are breathing from your abdomen, your hand should actually rise and your chest should move only slightly while your abdomen expands. When you’ve taken in a full breath, make sure to pause momentarily and then slowly exhale through your nose or mouth, whichever is most comfortable, making sure you exhale fully. Practice doing ten full abdominal breaths until you are calm again.
  • Count backwards: Before opening your mouth to respond, consider counting backwards towards calmness, until you are in a different place. Whether you’re driving, making dinner or trying to relax at the end of a hard day, a perfect way to stay calm and stop your anger dead in its tracks is to begin with a number that’s higher than your stress level. For some people this can be 100, for others it might be as simple as going from 10-0. Whatever number you choose, this exercise buys you time before doing or saying something you’ll regret.
  • Long-term strategies: For longer-term calming practices, integrate physical exercise into your weekly routine.  We are all busy, overworked, and short on time, but one way to be the best parent possible is to practice self care. This can come in the form of yoga, meditation, running, biking or simply walking. (The Calm Parent AM and PM by Debbie Pincus MS LMHC is also an excellent resource with great advice for keeping your cool that you can check out.)

Step 4: Communicate calmly.
Healthy communication relies on both you and your child being calm, so do not approach them if they are still raging at you or you are still too angry to talk. For both young children as well as adolescents, keep your comments brief and to the point.

“I really don’t appreciate it when I come home form work and you haven’t done any of your chores. Please do them now.”

“I don’t like it when you take your brother’s toys and make him cry. The consequence for that is that your train now is in time-out for 20 minutes, while you practice better behavior.”

“You know the rule in our house is completing homework before television. No more TV for the night.”

When you are finished, move on to something else. Don’t dwell on what just happened.

Step 5: Choose Your Battles.
Too often our own tantrums are born out of parents feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, so it’s important to not put yourself in a position of feeling chronically overwhelmed by getting upset over every little annoying thing your child does. One way to combat this is to really think hard about what is important to try to enforce and what you can just let go of in regards to your child. For younger kids, there are a lot of daily behaviors that can be frustrating: at this age kids are messy, they cry easily, they have meltdowns, and they can be grouchy. Middle school and high school age kids are messy, can be moody, irresponsible and unfocused. Pinpoint what your family values are and decide what to tackle. Is it important that your child completes chores, has a semi-clean room, and is  respectful? If so, then make it clear what your expectations are and let the rest (the occasional mess, the roll of the eyes, the moody/grouchy behavior) roll off your back.

Step 6: Apologize when you are in the wrong.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is knowing when to admit you’ve done something wrong and apologizing. Some parents struggle with this, thinking that if they do this they are giving up their power or showing weakness. But ask yourself what it is you want to teach your child about grown-up relationships. Surely we want our kids to know when they’ve wronged someone and teach them the importance of an apology.There’s nothing more powerful than a parent admitting their faults and offering a sincere apology. Modeling this type of humility shows a child that we are all human and that even parents make mistakes.

Step 7: Find Support.
Pick trusted friends or family members who will support you through your parenting years. Find like-minded parents who you feel safe confiding in when you’ve exploded and feel ashamed or guilty. Make sure you nurture these relationships so you have a sounding board (and can return the favor) when you are at your wits end. Important: Do not divulge your worst parenting moments to other parents or family members who are judgmental, or who express shock or dismay at your momentary lapse in parenting judgment. These people will only make your feel worse about yourself and will suck the energy out of you.

Related: “Parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had.”

Step 8: Be Kind to Yourself.
Lastly, practice self-care by being kind and forgiving towards yourself. Parents are harder on themselves than any other group of individuals I know of. This is born out of intense feelings of love and concern for our kids, as well as the desire to get it all right all the time. But there’s no such things as a perfect parent who does it all right, all the time. Most of us are lucky if we can get through the day being a “good enough” parent. Whether you lose your temper once or twenty times, acknowledge to yourself that you’ve made mistakes, and commit to doing better in the future. Acknowledge that you aren’t perfect, that you may have future tantrums, but that you are human and fallible. Forgive yourself for past indiscretions and move forward with the goal that you will start each day aiming to try your best, forgiving yourself if you weren’t great, and praising yourself when you find you are parenting at your best.

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About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

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