4 Tools to Help You Stay Calm with Your Difficult Child

                  by Debbie Pincus MS  LMHC


What’s one of the keys to  avoiding constant fights with your child? Believe  it or not, it’s the same  skill that will help you through any crisis  situation—your ability to remain  calm. When your child is upset, anxious or  angry, keeping your cool is half the  battle. It’s a way for you to put out the  fire by throwing water on the flames,  rather than fan it by adding more fuel  from your own emotional tank.

The  important thing  to remember is that all emotions are acceptable, but all  behaviors are not. When  we don’t accept our own emotions, we act them out with  our kids and our family  members in unhealthy ways.


Related:  Is your child disrespectful? How to  stay calm.

I understand that staying calm  when dealing with kids is much, much easier  said than done—especially when you  have a child who acts out. Knowing you  should be calm doesn’t necessarily translate  into being able to do it. But why?  We know the right thing to do, but in the  midst of the battle our emotional  brain gets stirred up and we lose sight of  our logical brain. When our brain  becomes overloaded with emotion, “reactivity”  begins. Reactivity can come in  the form of yelling, screaming, and shutting  down, none of which will help you  deal with any kids, let alone difficult ones.

As we all know, parenting is a  very emotional experience. Our kids and our  interactions with them can trigger  our own feelings of helplessness,  frustration, confusion, hurt, disappointment,  and rage, to name a few. These  feelings can quickly stir us up or leave us  feeling overwhelmed. We are each  vulnerable to different situations, and each “trigger”  we have requires us to  face ourselves, our limitations, our shame, our fears,  our childhood  insecurities, and the less-than-perfect qualities we’d prefer to  keep tucked  away.

Related:  How to manage inappropriate child  behavior.

Our children, just by being  kids, can trigger painful emotions in us. Our  reaction to these emotions can  cause us to make poor parenting decisions. At  those moments when we are trying  to protect ourselves, we don’t necessarily  have our children’s best interests  in mind. When stirred up, we often do not  speak kindly or calmly to them—and we  often regret it later. Guilt follows. The  important thing to remember is that all  emotions are acceptable, but all  behaviors are not. When we don’t accept our  own emotions, we act them out with  our kids and our family members in unhealthy  ways. When our feelings control  us, rather than us being able to control them, we  have a much harder time  helping our kids mature and deal with their life. The  key is to remain calm and  not respond with a knee-jerk reaction when your child  pushes your buttons.

Here are some ways to be a calm  parent when dealing with your kids.

Change your perspective. If you can think differently, you  will be less  angry at your child. Our kids can make us annoyed, mad,  frustrated—sometimes on  a daily basis. But remember that most of the time they  are acting their age. Our  annoyance is understandable but it isn’t about them,  it’s about us. It is about  our patience, tolerance (or lack of it), attitude  and outlook. When your child swears  at you, it’s hard to keep this in  perspective—your first thought is to feel  angry, disappointed and blaming of  his behavior. And, don’t get me wrong, he  should be made to face consequences.  But in the back of your mind,  remember—your child is doing this because he’s a  kid. Your job is to guide him  by making sure he takes responsibility and makes  amends.

The developmental task of teens  is to experiment with new roles and  relationships. It’s scary and frustrating  for us, but this is what is natural  for their development. Breaking rules and  testing limits helps kids to learn  the laws of sowing and reaping. It helps  them learn from their own experiences.  This is natural and normal. Our job is  to guide them to better behavior by  offering them natural consequences, not to  blame them for their behavior.

Related:  How to manage any situation with  your child without losing your  cool.

I am not suggesting we allow  for bad behavior, I am suggesting that you try  not to be mad at them for their  developmentally-appropriate actions—even if  those actions are annoying or disappointing.  Your frustration may be about your  own lack of patience which is a problem that  is yours to figure out, not  theirs.

Finding ways of being less  angry at our kids is important. If we take  responsibility for our own feelings  and actions, they will be more likely to be  able to do the same. Processing,  soothing, anticipating and understanding our  own feelings is our job. If we  blame our kids for our feelings and reactions,  they will learn to blame others  for their actions and will not learn how to  take responsibility for themselves.

Identify your feelings. When you are about to let off steam,  pause and  identify your feelings. Is it irritation, frustration, hurt that’s  bothering  you? Name it; identify it as your own. Say to yourself, “When I see  my kid  doing X, Y or Z, I feel ____ because I ____.” For example, “When I see  my kid  not helping around the house, I feel furious because I feel ineffective  as a  parent. I’m scared he will never be responsible and guilty that I have not  done  my job.” Then ask yourself what you need to work through within yourself  and  what proper feedback you need to give to your child. In other words, be a   responsible parent by processing what belongs to and then decide what guidance  you  need to give to your child. In this scenario you might say to yourself, “I  need  to think about how I can improve my effectiveness as a parent or else I  need to  accept that I have done all that I can. I have to deal with my anxiety  about my  child’s future and find ways to resolve my own guilt.”

Related:  Real ways to parent more  effectively.

If we acknowledge and accept  our own feelings, we can start doing the work  of soothing them, understanding  them, changing them, processing them and  releasing them. Our painful feelings  will not spill onto others. It requires us  to be mature enough to embrace the  feelings that we keep trying to hide. It is  our job as parents to identify our  underlying feelings of fear, inadequacy or  shame—or whatever feelings you keep  hoping won’t get triggered. When they do  get triggered, notice how tempting it  is to blame those that trigger them.  Remember, our kids trigger feelings  already within us—they don’t cause the  feeling.  It’s our responsibility to work out our own  feelings rather than  to blame them on our kids.

Pause, breathe, think. Model for your child how to deal with  difficult  feelings. Say to her, “I’m frustrated right now, so I’m going to take  a few  deep breaths, calm myself down and figure out how to best deal with this   situation. We can talk later.” When you feel red-hot inside, that’s your   internal signal to take some deep breaths and think how to best and most   effectively deal with the situation. Not only are you calming yourself down,   but you are teaching your kids how to do the same. These tools of pausing,  breathing  and thinking are effective for a good reason. When you are physically  or  emotionally threatened, your adrenaline rises. You might be emotionally   threatened when your child won’t listen to you and you don’t know what to do.  The  body reads this as a threat and prepares for “fight or flight” by draining  the  energy from your brain and putting it into your muscles. This is why we all  end  up saying things we later regret—and why it is necessary to use the calming  tools of pausing, breathing and thinking. Without them, you won’t be able to   solve the problems you are confronted with effectively because you won’t have   access to the part of the brain that can make good decisions.

Let go of worry and focus on what’s good. Understand that  worrying about your child is a  negative act. Worrying also makes your child  anxious because he comes to  believe that there is something within him to be  worried about. He becomes more  nervous. Yet how do you not worry   about a difficult kid who is making poor choices all the time? Our imagination   runs wild with images of all the worst possible outcomes happening. But it’s   important to realize that the more you worry and have negative images floating   around in your brain, the more a neural pathway is formed, making worry easier   and easier. So you worry more, not less. Therefore, try to fill your   imagination with positive outcomes, rather than negative ones. After all, you   don’t know the outcome anyway. Imagining things turning out positively will   help you feel less stressed. When you are less stressed, your brain functions   better, you feel better and you have more of a chance of guiding your child   more effectively. Positive thinking can inadvertently cause a positive outcome.   And finally, feeling anger (or any reactivity) is detrimental to warm, close  interactions.  Repeated negative interactions over time can destroy good  relationships.

Calm is contagious in a family.  If you learn how to be calm, you will create  a calm family. You will also be showing  your children how to calm down in any  given situation—an important life skill  for everyone to master.


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