Here’s a scenario: you're exhausted from a long and stressful day at work and you find the house a mess. No one has bothered to clean up. And worse, your toddler is in the middle of the living room tipping a whole container of baby powder on the floor. What is your instant reaction? Or do you find yourself taking a deep breath before you respond?
Parenting a toddler is definitely no walk in the park and parents are often confronted with situations that can really test one's patience. On the surface, “reacting” and “responding” may seem the same, but experts are giving parents compelling reasons to go with the latter whenever you feel your anger bubbling to the surface.
"Reacting" to your child is something you may regret.
“A reaction is instant,” says Matt James, Ph.D., a speaker, educator, and author of several books, in an article for Psychology Today. “When you say or do something ‘without thinking,’ that’s the unconscious mind running the show.” Think of how you would immediately suddenly feel the urge to snap (and sometimes, you even do) when your child does something you’ve just told him not to, like jump on the couch.
James adds, “A reaction is based in the moment and doesn’t take into consideration long-term effects of what you do or say...It might turn out okay but often a reaction is something you regret later.”
Reacting to the situation takes many forms and is given many names, which often lean towards the negative and are not very pleasant. “Losing control,” “snapped,” and “flipped” can all be terms related to reacting.
Says Jill Ceder, a psychotherapist, in an article for Motherly, “When we ‘fly off the handle,’ it happens so quickly and we aren't thinking about how our children are perceiving us. Our reactions can be very scary to kids. Also, we are modeling that this is how grown-ups react to stress.”
"Responding," rather than reacting, has long-term benefits
A better alternative to reacting is responding. A reaction is immediate, usually right after having noticed something. A response takes a little more time and is a by-product of having thought things through first.
Says James, “A response will be more ‘ecological,’ meaning that it takes into consideration the well-being of not only you but those around you. It weighs the long-term effects and stays in line with your core values.”
If you’ve made it a promise to lessen yelling, for example, responding — pausing before acting — is your best bet to get on that path.
“In stressful situations when our emotions are easily triggered, it's hard to be the best version of ourselves,” says Ceder. “If we choose to be more mindful by pausing before responding, we can teach kids they too can pause and choose to respond instead of react.”
Responding can be quite difficult, however, as it requires awareness of one’s negative emotions, a degree of self-control and patience, and finding love and empathy when you’re already overwhelmed. The tips below can help.
How to respond when you want to yell at your child.
1. Notice your emotions.
Part of mindfulness is being aware of your feelings. The awareness does not mean you are compelled to change, fix, or hide them right at that instant. “You are not your emotion and you don't have to act on the emotion. Just be there, fully mindful of it,” says Ceder.
“When the emotional part of the brain gets loud, it’s really hard for the problem-solving part of the brain to do its work,” explains Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child in a TED Talk. “It's about noticing your emotions and being able to turn in and look at them with the intention to understand — not to judge.”
You're angry, yes, but there's no need to shout.
2. Be in the moment.
Parents have so much to do and have so little time in the day to accomplish them all. It’s easy to shout threats to your child from across the room and come storming in when you’re already preoccupied and busy with paperwork or house chores.
But parenting and discipline needs your full attention. In short, be in the moment, says Kaiser Greenland. When you’re fully present and you’ve thought things through, it’s easier to realize that there’s no need to raise your voice and short, stern explanations can be enough.
Love appeases anger. It can be difficult to see past the situation when you’re brimming with negative emotions, but remind yourself that you love your child and only want what’s best for him.
See the situation from your child’s point of view first. He may be throwing things because he’s tired and needs a nap. He may have dropped the glass cup but he didn’t mean to break it. He might be acting out just because toddlers are at an age where they like to assert their independence.
“If you can't see goodness in your child during a tantrum or argument think of a time when you felt connected with your child and responded with kindness,” says Ceder.
Take a deep breath, then ask yourself what a calm, cool, and collected grown-up would do. You can do this, mom. (But we won't judge if you want wine or cupcake afterward.)