We know from decades of parenting research that children do best when adults act from a place of loving authority (high expectations paired with high warmth). However, as anyone who is a parent can tell you, sometimes this is more easily said than done. If staying calm is a challenge for you, rest assured that you’re not alone in this struggle.
Children bring out the best and the worst in all of us, and being a parent is difficult in ways people don’t understand until they experience it. In addition, many of us were on the receiving end of anger from our own parents, and even if we vowed “never to do that,” we tend to revert to what we grew up with when under stress.
Despite the fact that anger gets triggered so often in parenting, working to control our own behavior is vital if we want the best outcomes for our children. If you’re striving for a mutually responsive relationship, but anger keeps getting in your way of responding kindly and consistently, use these four tips for maintaining self-control.
1. Don’t wait until your patience runs out. If you wait until you’re at the end of your rope before setting boundaries, the possibility for explosive interactions is significantly higher. Instead, work on setting those boundaries as soon as that first spike of annoyance hits. Setting boundaries before you’re fed up allows you to respond to a child’s likely disappointment with compassion rather than annoyance.
2. Start over. When your interactions with your child slip beyond annoyance into anger, this is the crucial moment when things are still salvageable. If you suddenly notice yourself yelling, an easy way to change directions is simply to stop mid-sentence, take a deep breath and say, “I don’t want to yell. Let’s start over again.” This can feel awkward the first few times you do it, but it can be surprisingly effective. Truly, it’s possible for the interaction to turn on a dime and go from confrontation to connection in a moment. Perhaps your child will need a hug, a snuggle or a silly song to reconnect. Then you can move forward again on the same team.
3. Model anger management. We know that children live what they see, so why not show them techniques for getting negative feelings under control? This can be especially helpful when you need more than just a deep breath to turn things around. You might say, “I’m feeling really frustrated. I’m going to get a drink of water to help calm me down.” Then, go do it. If your child follows you crying and clinging to your ankles, ignore him, take your drink, and then inject a little humor: “How’d my leg get so heavy?”
Other things you could say and do include:
• Going into another room
• Stepping outside
• Washing your face
• Taking several deep “yoga breaths”
• Stretching as high as you can
• Counting to ten
• Petting a dog or cat
• Asking for a hug
Generally, anything that involves getting more oxygen to your brain and creating a little space from your trigger will work. Verbalizing what you’re doing to regulate your emotions is powerful because when children see you using these tools, they will begin to use them as well. The problem is transformed from a disaster into a positive teaching moment.
4. Restore your connection. When we lose control and act on our anger in ways that we’re not proud of, we might be tempted to ignore what happened and pretend it never occurred. The better option is to acknowledge the incident and take the time to repair the gap our actions have created in our connection with our child. However, it’s vital that we do these repairs in age-appropriate ways that feel reassuring to our children, rather than further indulging our own emotions by pouring out feelings of guilt and remorse. Children need to know that they can depend on us — now more than ever. Acknowledge what happened in a simple way, and let them know that your angry outburst is over: “Wow, I was really mad, wasn’t I? I’m learning to keep my temper just like you. I’m done being mad now.” Then take the time to reconnect. Remember that children feel connected in different ways than adults. Tailor your efforts to your child. Movement, fun touch, imagination and humor might be more connecting than a snuggle for some children. You know your child best.
What we do when we get angry teaches children what they should do when they get angry. We all lose our cool from time to time. The more quickly we can notice ourselves sliding down this path, the easier it can be to turn things around. Seeing that young children learn through imitation, we must strive to be a person who is worth imitating.
Faith Collins is a parenting coach, public speaker and classroom teacher dedicated to supporting relationships with the young children in our lives. Her new book, Joyful Toddlers and Preschoolers: Create a Life that You and Your Child Both Love (Hohm Press, Oct. 1, 2017) guides parents in forming mutually responsive parent-toddler relationships. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and young daughter, where she runs outdoor parent-child classes in her Play Garden, and is Co-Director of the Rocky Mountain LifeWays Training. Learn more at joyfultoddlers.com.