We’ve all been there: screeching children, yelling parents, demands and attitude on both sides, all on top of undiluted exhaustion. Parenting is hard work — and it’s especially difficult when we’re having a hard day ourselves.
Parenting sometimes feels like an endless cycle of telling a child “no,” “stop doing that” or “don’t lick your brother.” And those (valid) directions are often met with the immature child response of “leave me alone,” “you never let me do anything fun,” “I don’t like you anymore,” or completely shutting down or lashing out.
So how can we offer compassion to our kids — and break that cycle of negativity and disconnect — when our kids are driving us nuts? Here are four ways to keep your cool even when you’re struggling.
Acknowledge your triggers.
The first step to offering compassion to our kids when we really just want to shout at them is to acknowledge our own triggers. Once we acknowledge that we’re feeling triggered by something from the past, we can remind ourselves that the current situation isn’t an emergency — even if it feels like it. Victor E. Frankl, author of “Man’s Search For Meaning” and an Austrian neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, wrote that “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Take time for self-care.
I’m not usually one for platitudes, but they're used often for a reason. You can’t fill someone else’s cup without first filling your own, even just a little. As parents, we often try to survive on the smallest dregs left in our cup. Self-care comes in the form of mental and physical care. Take time for yourself when you can, as often as you can. Take care of your body. Be gentle with yourself when you mess up. Be gentle with your kids when they mess up. We could all use a little more love and compassion.
Look for the root cause of the behavior.
When our kids are whiny, bickering or pushing boundaries, it isn’t because they find joy in making us miserable; it's because they have an unmet need.
As Dr. Lawrence Cohen of Playful Parenting says: “I’m always amazed when adults say that children ‘just did that to get attention.’ Naturally children who need attention will do all kinds of things to get it. Why not just give it to them?” The unmet need might be hunger, fatigue, feeling disconnected from you, or even inner turmoil from a new sibling, bullying, missing a family member and so on.
When we just scrape the surface of stopping a behavior for the sake of stopping it, we do nothing to address the underlying cause. This leads to a temporary pause in the behavior, but it will burst out of the child again at another time in the form of another unwanted behavior — until we can help them work through the root cause.
Communication comes in many forms, but how we communicate is what matters. Dr. Thomas Gordon shares the 12 roadblocks to communication, which are often the culprits in the disconnect between the parent and child. We can offer compassion to our kids by communicating with them in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad for having immature and impulsive brains.
“Children don’t say, ‘I had a hard day at school today; can I talk to you about it?’ They say, ‘Will you play with me?’” reminds Dr. Lawrence. Getting playful is often the key to fostering cooperation with kids and lessening the irritating, unwanted behaviors that make parents want to run away and hide. No one likes to feel bossed around, including children. When we get playful, they often forget about the whining because the whining was a plea for connection.
We can use play to help a child communicate about a hard situation in their life because play feels safer than speaking directly about it. We want to use play to help them over that initial hump that is blocking them from communicating effectively.
It's not easy to show compassion to our kids — or anyone, for that matter — when they're pushing all of our buttons. But trying out some of these methods may help reduce the frequency of problem behaviors, as well as improve our own mental health and healing.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018, and updated in January 2022.