When we are at the end of our ropes, it can be incredibly hard to stay calm when our children do or say something that is upsetting. Self-talk can so quickly shout negative messages in our minds like, “I can’t take this anymore,” or “I don’t have time for this!”
It is important for us to not let these kinds of negative messages move from our thoughts to our voice. Doing so is likely to get everyone worked up, and create a sense of counterwill in our children. Dr. Gordon Neufeld coined this term, which represents the phenomenon that happens when a person feels an instinctual drive to do the opposite of what they are being asked to do. This drive is inherent in us to keep us safe by not following instructions from someone who might have harmful intentions, but we don’t want to trigger this drive when, for example, we are trying to get out of the door in the morning.
There are two important factors, which reduce counterwill and increase cooperation in children:
1) That they feel a positive, loving connection with the person who is giving the instructions, and 2) That these instructions are delivered in a clear, supportive, and encouraging way.
One of the best ways to accomplishing these goals when emotions flare is to have phrases ready ahead of time that you can rely on to get you through rough patches. Saying something like, “You make me SO MAD,” might be what we are thinking, but these words are sure to stir upset feelings in your child.
Instead, phrases that acknowledge the child’s emotions (validate), demonstrate you are paying attention (attune), help the child manage his or her feelings (affect management), and problem solve will have a much more positive effect.
When a child feels heard and supported, (s)he can let go of the anger and move into the more deep emotion that triggered the melt-down, which (unless it is due to a compromised state) is often sadness. That shift from anger to sadness will allow the strong emotion to process and everyone to feel better.
15 phrases to say instead of “You make me so mad.”
These phrases will encourage calming down and rational thinking from everyone. I am grateful that several of my parenting educator colleagues have offered their expertise for this list.
- “Is that ____ (puzzle, book, tower, banana feel) hard to do? Do you need 1) a break, 2) to try again, 3) or some help?”
- “I love you too much to argue/ fight with you about this. I’m going to take a little break until I can calm myself down and then we can talk about solutions whenever we both feel ready.” Amy McCready, author of The Me, Me, Me Epidemic.
- Katie Hurley, author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How To Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World reminds us that it is important for kids to know that adults have feelings and emotions. Her suggestion is to say: “I feel frustrated and impatient right now. Let’s sit together and take some deep breaths to calm down for a few minutes,” which will help diffuse the anger while normalizing the range of emotions that kids experience.
- “Let’s both count to ten and then hug. Once we settle down we can talk calmly about how we’re feeling.” –Joanne Foster, co-author of Beyond Intelligence
- Rachel Macy Stafford, the New York Times best-selling author of Hands Free Life has this suggestion: “Remember, we’re on the same team. Let’s work together on this.” Rachel says this out loud for both her child and herself when they are in conflict. She says this phrase brings compassion, understanding, and teamwork to the frustrating situation. This helps the situation resolve more quickly and more kindly.
- “Wow, my body feels really tight and tense right now. I am going to go take some deep breaths to calm myself down.” –Casey O’Roarty, the founder of the Joyful Courage parenting podcasts. I like that this phrase focuses on the physical reaction of feeling angry. Putting words to the feelings helps it to process through.
- “I’m feeling too upset to take care of this right now. I’m going to sit down with some tea and calm down. I’ll talk about it later when I’m feeling better.” –Sarah Chana Radcliffe, author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice.”
- “My anger is getting too big right now,” or “My anger is too big to talk calmly about this right now.” Then focus on getting yourself back to calm (and your anger down to size). –Nicole Schwarz, author of Positive Parenting for Imperfect Families.
- Dona Matthews, co-author of Beyond Intelligence offered this phrase: “I love you, ____ (child’s name). And right now I’m feeling frustrated. I need you to understand that it’s not okay to ______(problem). Is there anything you need me to understand better?”
- Tracy Cutchlow, the author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based On Science uses coloured zones to help her children manage their emotions. Her suggested phrase is: “I’m in the yellow zone, and I feel myself heading into the red zone. I’m going to take a break now.” She says this is a simple visual that kids can use themselves, too. Cutchlow also shared that she showed her three-year-old how to do “lion’s breath” and “horse breath” from yoga, in addition to deep breaths.
- “I hear you saying NO. I understand this is NOT going how you want it. Let’s work together.” –Ariadne Brill from Positive Parenting Connection
- “I see that something bothering you. Let’s fill up our love tanks and try again.”
- “I see that you are mad because we have to leave. Do you need some more hugs to feel ready to go?”
- One of my favourite empathy-evoking phrases is from Dr. Laura Markham’s book, Peaceful Parents, Happy Siblings: “Oh sweetheart, I understand. I’m sorry this is so hard.” When I say this to my boys, pretty much every time they crumple into crying ball. I scoop them up into a hug and stay with them until they are ready to move into a problem-solving phase.
- “You are mad because I cut the toast the wrong way (broke the banana/ stirred the yogurt/ _____). I cannot change that.” Get down to your child’s eye level, calm your tone and lower your voice. “What can we do now?” I’d even add an “I’m sorry this is hard” in there to help the anger shift.
The last five phrases are from my Taming Tantrums App, which you can find in your iPhone or Android App Store. Do you have phrases that work well in your family? I’d love to hear those: please post them on my Facebook page or here in the comments below.
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