Dealing with difficult child behavior? 6 ways to keep your cool

March 15, 2021
Dealing with difficult child behavior? 6 ways to keep your cool

When your 2-year-old throws a temper tantrum at the playground or simply doesn't listen, does it make you want to scream? Some days, your kid's behavior can push you to your limit. But, it's important to stay calm and keep your cool.

Although it may seem like yelling will result in the child behavior you're looking for, it's actually counterproductive, says Emily McNeil, co-owner and clinical director of the Mariposa Center for Infant, Child and Family Enrichment in Denver. "It's neurobiologically impossible for a child to be more regulated than their parent," says McNeil. So if you want your child to be calm, the first step is staying calm yourself.

Here are six ways to stay calm in the midst of behavioral chaos.

1. Take care of yourself

When you're hungry, tired or overworked, your ability to calm yourself down in the face of negative child behavior will plummet. Our society sometimes implies that asking for help or taking care of yourself is unacceptable, says McNeil, but don't guilt yourself out. That means getting enough sleep, eating healthy meals and snacks throughout the day and giving yourself some time to yourself. Whether you're sick, tired or just plain overwhelmed, request to tag-team with your partner or a nanny or sitter, and return the favor later on.

2. Decide to change

Reacting calmly to your child's shenanigans is a huge challenge, and it won't happen automatically. McNeil emphasizes that any major parenting shift has to be intentional and mindful in order to be successful. Create a mantra to keep yourself on track, like "I will not yell," "I can stay calm" or "I love my child."

3. Stop and breathe

If you feel yourself losing your cool, breathe deeply from your belly to calm your body naturally. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and author of "Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids," calls this practice "stop, drop and breathe," and she encourages parents to do it even if they feel an intense need to react. After all, your brain is telling you that the situation is an emergency, but you can remind your body, through deep breathing, that it is not an emergency at all.

4. Get some space

If you start to feel frustrated with your child's misbehavior, take a break to calm down. That might mean walking to the other side of the room or leaving the room entirely (if your child is over age 5). You can continue breathing or visualize a picture of your child at a happier time — like when they had ice cream dripping down their chin and offered you a lick, suggests McNeil. "It's much easier to parent that child than the one hitting her sister right now," she adds.

5. Set a limit respectfully

Instead of yelling, McNeil suggests whispering or getting very quiet, which can get the message across while de-escalating the situation. Markham emphasizes the importance of first empathizing with your child, then stating the limit: "I know you're feeling angry because you're having fun playing with those animals and don't want to leave. We do need to go to the doctor, though. Let's choose an animal to take with you to the doctor's office."

6. Find the right time to teach

Teaching your child a lesson is best done when the situation is diffused and they're on good behavior. If your child is misbehaving or throwing a tantrum, wait until things are calm, and then remind your child about what happened: "Something happened earlier today that bothered me. What can we do differently next time?"

Sure, sometimes it seems like your kids just don't listen unless you yell at them. But yelling creates a fear and threatens to harm your relationship, says McNeil. Do you want to role model yelling as the right reaction to frustration? Your answer can give you the confidence to stay calm in the midst of the most frustrating child behavior that your kid can throw at you.
 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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