How to Keep Your Cool When Your Kids Push Your Buttons

Parenting can be frustrating sometimes. Try these tips for managing your emotions when you feel like you're at your wit's end

Illustration by Ekaterina Trukhan

The three-year-old won’t stop whining about her sweater being itchy. The kids are bickering endlessly over whose turn it is to choose the bedtime story. And every time you go to the store together, they beg for something not on your list. Although my kids are no longer preschoolers, I still remember being frustrated by situations just like these.

Children can wear down even the most Zen parent, but it is important to distinguish between misbehaviour and behaviour that is age-appropriate but still annoying to us, explains Sara Dimerman, a Thornhill, Ont.-based child and family therapist and author. “When a child purposely misbehaves, it’s       likely because of the attention that the misbehaviour receives,” she says, but sometimes our negative reactions are not the child’s fault. “We may be tired, hungry or irritated by something else.”

Frustration Is Normal
Parents don’t like to admit to losing their temper with their children; however, it’s important to be aware of how that anger is expressed, says Dimerman. “In other words, it is okay for parents to be angry and to express anger but not to express it with violence, ridicule, put-downs or name calling. And along with the words parents choose to use, they also need to monitor their body language (e.g., finger wagging) and overall physical demeanour.” If you raise your voice and shout at your kids, “they’re learning that that’s how you relate,” adds Vancouver parenting author and speaker Kathy Lynn.

How to Stay Cool, Calm and Collected

  • Give clear instructions. Lynn gives the example of the boy who walks through the kitchen in his muddy boots. “Don’t tell a child that you just washed the floor and how long it took. Simply tell him to take his boots off at the door.”
  • Plan ahead. “We’re often trying to get children to work at a pace that doesn’t fit for them,” explains Lynn. If your child is a dawdler, factor in the extra minutes he needs. You’ll be less likely to erupt when things don’t happen on time, she says.
  • Adjust your expectations. Become more aware of what the “normal” social, emotional and physical milestones of development are at different ages, says Dimerman. Reading up on what is typically expected of a three-year-old, for example, may help you be less inclined to believe your child is misbehaving when he’s actually unable to perform a certain task at that age.
  • Get some perspective. Using the “step back and count to 10” method can work, says Lynn. “It simply gives you more time to think and act rather than react.”

You’ve Lost Your Temper, Now What?

  • Apologize. An apology shows humility and expresses that you are not perfect. However, if you’re constantly saying things you regret and apologizing often, your child may become immune to your words, explains Dimerman. “If you find yourself repeating behaviours that you’re not proud of, then you may need to consider other reasons for your triggers and also strategies for dealing with how you react.”
  • Take a time out. Even parents need a time out occasionally to figure out how best to diffuse their anger and resolve a situation. Whether it’s walking around the yard or going to your room (assuming your child is supervised), explain first what you’re doing, says Lynn, so your child doesn’t feel abandoned. This is also a good way to model self-calming, notes Lynn.
  • Compartmentalize your day. Don’t allow one negative interaction to upset your whole day, suggests Dimerman. Rather, divide your day into increments. “For example, if you are upset at your child for not cooperating with getting dressed in the morning, don’t tell her later in the day that she can’t accompany you on an outing. Deal with the situation at the time it happens and then move forward so that you can enjoy more positive connections with your child as the day unfolds.”

When to Get Help
If all these practical strategies don’t lessen your frustration, and you’re not enjoying your children the way you’d like to, you may need some support, whether it is talking to a friend, having your partner take over some of the times that are problematic or going for counselling. “If you’re angry many times during the day, it’s not healthy,” says Lynn. “If you’re angry many times during the week, that’s parenting.”

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