How to stay calm with your child

Bringing up children can be immensely stressful and frustrating, with most parents feel wound up by their children’s behaviour at times, occasionally losing their cool and reacting in a way they later regret. Psychologist Dr Victoria Samuel gives her top tips for staying cool in the heat of the moment

1. Change the way you view your child's behaviour.

The way you view your child's behaviour will influence the effect it has on you. Understanding child development can help you to see your child’s behaviour in a less negative light.

Parents often say “he’s winding me up” or “she knows how to press my buttons”. If you believe your child is deliberately seeking to upset you, then their behaviour is bound to infuriate you!

Let go of the idea that your infant or toddler is scheming about how to drive you crazy; this kind of manipulation is developmentally impossible as it requires a child to be able to understand that other people have beliefs and intentions different from their own – in developmental psychology this is called “theory of mind”.

This relatively advanced type of thought process does not develop until around age three or four years.

Try to view your toddler for what he is; a little person enjoying his new found ability to move around and explore with huge curiosity the fascinating world around him. Remember that the little person causing such havoc simply can't understand that his actions affect other people, has not developed the ability for self-control so will act on impulse. He also has no sense of time, so will just not be able to wait.

If you have an older child whom you feel is deliberately winding you up, try to look at why they may be behaving like this. Perhaps they have learnt that pushing you to the edge is the only way to get what they want? Make sure your child gets attention for all the positive behaviours you want to see more of.

2. Reduce stressful moments

If you can reduce the chances of melt-downs, tension and conflict in the first place there will be fewer chances of you reaching explosion point. Be aware that children will readily absorb the emotionally climate around them; if you’re wound up they will be too.

Use clear, brief, simple commands and keep your tone polite, calm but firm. Children will pick up on any hints of stress, wavering or anger in your voice and this may make them more agitated or more persistent.

Avoid sarcasm (“Great, I just love clearing up your mess!”), threats (“If you don’t hurry up, I’ll go without you”), labelling (“you’re so selfish”) or criticism (“you’re taking forever, you’re always lazy”) when speaking to your child. In the short term these kinds of comments will upset and provoke your child and in the long term they may cause a damaging erosion of their self-esteem.

Parents are often aware of the importance of praising good behaviour, but feel resentful about dishing out compliments to the little terror who’s causing so much grief. Set yourself small goals e.g. initially aim to praise just four good things a day, then gradually increase this. The more you praise, the more good behaviour you’ll see so this should be fairly easy!

Agree a set of house rules and consequences – write these down and post them somewhere obvious. If you have a pre-agreed plan, your child knows where they stand, and you’re less likely to react hastily in the heat of moment.

Set aside weekly relaxation time – this is not a luxury for you but a necessity. This may be a massage, a nice walk, listening to music or just a relaxing bath. Set up a babysitting circle with a group of friends if you are struggling with childcare.

3. How to cope if close to snapping

Reacting in anger often leads to rash decisions and sometimes aggressive responses such as shouting, smacking or hastily imposing extreme discipline. The result is that you're left feeling guilty and your child is left feeling upset and anxious. It’s fine to feel angry but it’s important to not let it control you.

Tune into your body and learn to recognise early warning signs that you’re getting annoyed such as heart racing, feeling shaky or getting sweaty.

Whenever you notice your body’s angry warning signs kicking in, stop what you are doing and try to look objectively at what has wound you up. This will help you to feel more in control.

State your feelings, without attacking. Use ‘when...then’: “When you call me names I get upset”.

Now is not a good time to get into a debate. Show willingness to resolve things but just not now – “We can talk about this tomorrow over breakfast, but right now I’m feeling too wound up".

If your child is safe, take time out , saying “I need some time to cool down”. Remove yourself from the situation.

Take deep breaths; in through your nose and out through your mouth, trying to slow your breath as much as possible.

Try clenching your hands tight as you breathe in then releasing them as you breathe out. This will turn down your body’s fight-flight response and makes you feel calmer.

If it’s hard to leave your child, use distraction techniques (counting, reciting song lyrics or a poem in your head) to stop yourself from reacting rashly. Use positive self-talk – say to yourself “I’m doing the best I can” or “Keep calm!”

Displace your anger by whatever means works for you – vacuuming, singing along to a favourite song, doing exercise.

Some parents find it useful to keep a journal to jot down how they feel after angry outbursts. This is a useful way to vent your emotion and also may be helpful in revealing any recurrent patterns in you and your child’s behaviours.

If you find you are regularly losing control of your anger and it feels like nothing is helping, you may benefit from seeking some professional support and advice.

Now watch a related video to How to stay calm with your child.

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The Parent Support Service provides practical, professional guidance for common parenting concerns.

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