Take a Chill Pill: How to Calm the Frustration of Parenting

By Michael Krisch

"I've been working hard not to yell at my kids. But sometimes I just can't help it. I explode, and then I feel so guilty. I know it isn't really what my kids are doing, it's just me, having a hard day. Is it really possible to stop yelling? What's the secret?" - Natalie 

Repost from Aha! Parenting.


The secret is compassion.

For your child, of course, but start with compassion for yourself. You can't be emotionally generous when you're stressed, running on empty, feeling like you aren't good enough. Once you feel a bit less tense, you'll think better, and you'll be able to reach out to your child in a more relaxed way to turn around whatever is happening. Without yelling.

So when you notice that you're feeling irritable, no shame, no blame. That's just part of being human. We all have hard days. Think of your irritation as a red blinking light on your car dashboard. When you notice it, you:

a) Redouble your efforts to control your child's behavior, even if it’s giving you a headache and making you yell.

b) Flog yourself for not being good enough.

c) Pull out the wire so it stops blinking, and go have a drink.  (This is like just swallowing those upset feelings.)

d) Say thank you for the signal, and use the opportunity to check in: What could you do right now to return yourself to a state of well-being, so you can be emotionally generous to your child? 

Not surprisingly, the best answer is D. That irritation you feel is a message that it's time for preventive maintenance. If you don't do some immediate self-care, you're likely to end up in the breakdown lane, exploding at your children. 

So on those hard days, as soon as you notice that you're feeling irritable:

1. Stop. Drop (whatever is going on.) Breathe. Remind yourself that there's no real emergency. Take a few deep breaths. That moves you back into the present moment, so you won't get hijacked by your big emotions. Now you have the choice of how to proceed.

2. Resist acting while you're angry. You'll feel an urgent need to act, but that's just an indication that you're in fight or flight. (It's your signal, like the blinking light.) If your child is acting out, set whatever limits you need to, as patiently as possible. But resist the urge to discipline. Any lesson you need to teach will be better taught later, when you're calm. Kids can't learn when they're upset, and if you're upset, they'll be upset. The most important lesson you can teach your child at this moment is self-regulation, and you do that by modeling.

Every time your frontal cortex overrides your emotional upset, you're rewiring your brain, so it gets easier to regulate yourself. And every time you tolerate upsetting feelings, accepting them without taking action, you're working through old unfinished emotional business, so you don't get triggered as often. That creates less drama, and more love.

3. Summon up all your compassion and give yourself the nurturing you need. We tend to think we have to wait for someone outside of us to take care of us. But parenting our children requires that we learn to parent ourselves. The loving parent you need in those tough moments is inside you. Growing up means taking the responsibility to nurture ourselves, so we can act like a grown-up when our children act childish. So give yourself a hug (literally.) 

Ask: What could you do right now to return yourself to a state of love and well-being? Just do it. If you need a big change -- more sleep, or exercise -- make a plan to get it. And if it's something you can't do until later, like go to bed early tonight, write a promise to yourself, put it in prominent place, and keep that promise. 

Still cranky?  Gather your kids, hug them, and say "I'm so sorry, but I'm a bit cranky today. I'll try to be kind to myself so I'm not cranky with you...Can you try to be kind to me too? I promise I'll go to bed early tonight (or whatever) so I'm not cranky again tomorrow."

Children learn so much from that -- how to manage themselves, how to empathize. Kids sense when we're disconnected and stressed, and act out, so often a hug reels them back to their best selves, too. Sure, they'll forget and screech and push your buttons, but they'll do less of that than usual. And you're taking responsibility for your own irritability, so they don't feel like bad people.

Then, when you find yourself starting to raise your voice, you can stop, breathe, and say "So sorry...that's my crankiness talking...let's try a do-over....Here's what I meant to say.... Sweetie, I need it to be more quiet right now...what's a good solution? Can you go outside to play this game?"

What if you find yourself routinely irritable?  Take a Vow of Yellibacy -- make a public commitment to a respectful tone. Agree on a hand signal for anyone in the family to use when someone's tone is less than respectful. Then, as soon as you notice your tone, just STOP and say "Oops.....Let's try a do-over....Let's all breathe together ten times....Ok, let's try that again...What I meant to say is...."

Of course, if you're irritable every day, that's a sign that you need to change something in your life. I encourage you to get whatever support you need to do that. You deserve to feel good. And your kids deserve the best of you, not what's left of you.