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“I’m not yelling — you’re yelling!” Tips for staying calm when kids act out

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Many things we do as parents can make us feel awful afterward. Whether its raising our voice in frustration or setting a firm limit and watching our child cry in response.

On this episode of Parenting Behavior, Dr. Andy Kahn shares tips for handling things in the moment when your child acts out. He also talks about striking a balance between giving yourself grace for your actions and taking time for self-reflection. 

Plus, he shares tips for picking your battles and preparing a default response when emotions are high. 

Episode transcript

Andy: Many things that we do as parents can make us feel really awful afterwards. Whether it's raising your voice in frustration or setting that limit that's just a little bit too harsh and makes your child cry. The key here is about learning how to give yourself grace, and learning how to be honest about how you're managing your parenting, and how to change what you're doing in the day-to-day. 

This is Parenting Behavior with me, Dr. Andy Kahn. I'm a licensed psychologist, and I'm a parent, and I've been working with families for over 20 years on managing their children's challenging behavior. Today's episode is about tips for staying calm when your child is acting out.

So, let's start with a few truths here. Kids with learning and thinking differences may act out more often than other kids. In fact, they may act out in a different way than kids who don't have learning and thinking differences. They may find it hard to articulate and use words to talk about what they're going through. And if they're not getting the support they need, it may get even harder. 

Caveat here for you. As parents, you may not know what your kids need yet, so don't beat up on yourselves. Give yourselves a little bit of grace. This is particularly true when we think about where is your child in their journey? What do we know about their differences today? So, very important here. Making mistakes in everyday parenting, it's not going to break your kids. They're resilient. Take some time to give yourself some grace and to learn from what's not going well for you and your kids. 

We think about how kids are going to make mistakes. Parents are going to make mistakes, and it's important for us to learn from those. So, let's take a few minutes now and let's talk tips. 

All right. So, let's talk about what to do in the moment. And first and foremost consider your options. So, what does that mean? Let's talk about this. Considering your options means first, can I stay where I am or can I get away? Sometimes being able to say "I'm going to take a break," go to a different space. Turn the lights down, do some deep breathing. These are great opportunities if your child is safe and you can have that opportunity to calm your body down. 

If you can't get out of the room when this is going on, what are your strategies? What can you do? So one very important thing to keep in mind, as emotions go up, you bring the simplicity down of what you do. Say less and say what you say very simply. "I'm going to breathe. I'm going to try to calm down."

This is really good to model for your child so that they can see that you're doing something to make yourself more relaxed, and they learn that expectation, that this is something they can do, because they're learning from you as a parent. 

The other thing to try to do is to think about using a self-calming statement in your head. I know this feels awkward, but saying things like, "All right, I'm calming down. I'm taking a breath." These are good examples of things that occupy your mind so that in those moments, you can bring your body down and your body's responses will slow. 

If you're consistently struggling to navigate your frustrations and to keep your emotions under control, it may be really important for you to consider seeking professional support. Getting some counseling and some support is really helpful at times where this just isn't something you can do on your own, and there's no shame in trying this. 

After the incident, what do we do? This is a situation where self-reflection is your friend. What happened? What was going on in that moment? Asking ourselves "Was what I was doing in that moment making things better, or was it making things worse?," and taking an honest moment to think about it. 

Remember, we're doing the reflection afterwards, because the emotions have already calmed down. This is not something you can do when you have big emotions. You're not going to be able to evaluate yourself honestly at that time. 

If we think about the response, what is it communicating to your child in that moment? Think about what it looks like when you're really frustrated and raising your voice. Your child learns from you that if you're frustrated and angry, you raise your voice, or you say words that you shouldn't say in front of your child. And these are messages that we don't want to share. 

Yes, we make these mistakes. This is a human thing that we're doing, but keep in mind, these are messages we really want to think about afterwards. 

The other thing to keep in mind is that, are you parenting by reacting to your child or are you parenting with intention? I know that sounds like psychobabble, parenting with intention. The idea about this is, are you doing something that you mean to do to affect your child's behavior in a way that really reflects that I'm thinking about it? I know what I'm doing, and this is supposed to be helpful. 

Most of reactive behavior is "I feel something, and I'm sharing how I feel in some emotional way." And that doesn't help us in our parenting efforts. 

OK. So, let's talk about that breaking glass in case of emergency moment. Or creating those default simple responses. Remember folks, when we have big emotions as parents, one of the key things that we need to think about is that you don't have full access to all of your parenting skills and ideas. And we're probably here today because sometimes this stuff is really hard and we don't know how to get out of our own way. 

So, one of the strategies that we need to focus on first is considering things like creating a simple phrase or cue that we're going to use for things like, "I'm going to take some space," or "I'm going to go do some deep breaths." The things that we do that allow us to take care of ourselves and automatically do what we need to, so the emotions don't take over. 

Remember, in these situations, you're telling your child with your words what you're doing and wherever possible, encouraging them to do the same by modeling. Remember, what we show our children and our behavior is what we show them is expected of them. So, over time, this does make an impact, parenting through what we do. 

Finally, always make sure your child knows that if you're taking space and getting away, that you're coming back. It's reassuring for them to know that you're going to come back and try to solve the problem. 

In the short term, if you're avoiding having big blow-ups, you're not raising your voice. You're not doing things that you're going to regret later and you're not ready to come back and address those problems, this is partial credit for parenting. Keep in mind that long-term, you really do need to come back and address these issues after you're calm. 

All right, folks. Let's talk about a classic parenting phrase, "Pick your battles." Now, when we talk about picking your battles, as a parent, what are we really talking about? We're talking about letting go of the stuff that doesn't matter. 

The idea that there are things that we engage in not because they're important, but because they make us angry. They make us frustrated. We are human beings and when our kids do things like when we're getting ready to go to work, and they just won't put on their shoes. Or my kid's in his PJs and he's dragging his feet, getting ready to go to second grade, and we're fighting over getting him dressed. 

These are situations that we really have to ask ourselves, is this the most important battle to pick at this point in time? If we think about PJs and your second grader, one of the great things is saying, "You know what? In this moment, I'm going to bring you to school in your PJs." Maybe you grab some sneakers and some clothing, chuck it in the car, put it in a bag, and send them off to school. Make that call to the teacher first. But in that situation, that is not a battle worth picking if it's going to set off your entire day as a family. 

If your child is showing patterns of behavior, and they're routinely refusing to put on shoes or to do the things they need to do in the morning, these can be things that you plan for. Send some extra clothes to school. If you have access to an extra pair of shoes, send them along. 

Some of these battles are things that make us feel embarrassed as parents. And ultimately, if teachers or daycare providers know that you're working through something with your child, they're going to give you some grace in this. Because we've all been through this together. 

Thinking about predicting their patterns and creating strategies is a great way to navigate this. And remember, picking battles is something that we really have to do over time. 

So, what do we do when we've already been human and messed this whole thing up? Obviously, this is an extremely common thing, and it's our human moment. It's when we screw up. So, the first thing that's important to do in this situation, take responsibility. Share, "You know, I didn't mean to get this frustrated," or "Getting frustrated and raising my voice wasn't OK. Slamming that door wasn't OK." Admitting this to the people around you that this was not expected. 

Step two, committing to change. What is it that we're going to do differently to make this better for next time? An apology is not all that helpful unless changes in the outcome goal. And finally, giving yourself some grace. Being able to say that "I'm imperfect, my kid's imperfect," and that "I'm going to make natural mistakes here" and that "I'm going to commit to doing it better next time, and I'm going to have that same commitment from my child." Very important strategy. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Parenting Behavior with Dr. Andy Kahn. We'd love to hear from you if you have any thoughts on this show. You can email us at ParentingBehavior@understood.org. I'll put that email in the show notes too, where you can also find more resources and links to anything we mentioned. 

Parenting Behavior with Dr. Andy Kahn is brought to you by Understood.org. It's produced and edited by Cody Nelson. Editorial guidance by Rae Jacobson. Music and mixing by Justin D. Wright. Briana Berry and Ilana Millner are our production directors, and Neil Drumming is our editorial director. For Understood.org., our executive directors are Laura Key, Scott Cocchiere, and Seth Melnick. 

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. Learn more at Understood.org.

Host

  • Andrew Kahn, PsyD

    is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.

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