Staying in Control when Things are Out of Control

By Shoshana Hayman, director of the Life Center/Israel Center for Attachment Parenting,

“When I’m calm, I have no trouble responding patiently, but the problem is that my child’s tantrums jangle my nerves and I lose control of myself!”

I hear parents say this over and over again. They might be talking about their five-year-old son who is whining because he wants them to buy him the toy he sees on the shelf in the store, their 10-year-old son who is complaining because he claims it was his brother who made the mess that he now has to clean, or their 15-year-old daughter who criticizes the family rules. Parents often feel stretched to the limits of their patience because of these daily minor confrontations.

“I just want to get the job done and get on with things!” But trying to find a quick solution usually prolongs these conflicts, and getting angry spoils the atmosphere as well as the relationship.

Seeing the child in a different way can help parents stay calm when their children are not. When parent and child are together, their brains do a dance! The parent can lead the child to a state of calm, rather than the child leading the parent to agitated confrontation. In each of the scenarios mentioned and in many others like them, the child is feeling frustration, one of our most primitive emotions. He is confronted with something he cannot have, a reality he doesn’t agree with, a situation he wants to change. When children are frustrated, it is normal for them to have temper tantrums, bite, kick, hit,  throw things, slam doors, yell, or talk back. They have not yet developed the ability to adapt quickly to the given circumstances. Their brains have not yet reached a level of development that helps them think of their options and choose their responses maturely. These are processes that take years to come into full fruition.

The most important role and perhaps the greatest challenge of parents is to believe in and support the processes which bring out the finest human qualities: caring, patience, thoughtfulness, courage, flexibility, self-control, adaptability, and responsibility. One of the ways parents can fulfill this role is to remain calm when the child is not. It helps to remember that children cannot yet control their impulses to hold on to their demands or to behave aggressively. When the parent remains calm, patient, compassionate, warm, and loving, the child then feels safe, that someone is in charge, and that his parent can handle his out-of-control behavior.  The child can then come to rest and begin to see a different reality.

Parents can see themselves as a safe haven as they accompany their children through the maze of getting from their feelings of frustration and anger to their feelings of disappointment, sadness, and coming to terms with what they cannot change. Perhaps this perspective will help parents remain calm and in control when their children are not.

10 thoughts on “Staying in Control when Things are Out of Control”

  1. I’m struggling with this issue too. I was raised in an abusive home so I’m trying on a daily basis to not fall into those old ways. Except for my bouts of ‘losing it’ and yelling…I’ve think I’ve done good so far, (I have not used any hitting or force with my girl) but I know I have a long way to go. I know yelling can be just as bad to kids…that is why I work on myself and how I react to things.

  2. Thanks for posting this! I think it’s something we all struggle with, whether or not we’ve had good role models. Like Michelle above, I didn’t either. I’m always trying to come up with ways to navigate those rough days (I’ve written about it here: For me, it’s the days of repeated bouts of crying/whining/screaming/tantrums that I struggle with most. Sadly, those days are usually due to teething pains or illness, a time when my son needs me to be at my best!

  3. A great reminder, especially for those challenging days with an intense preschooler. Always good to try to see the underlying need or reason for the behavior.

  4. Perhaps it will help parents to realize that we repeat with our children what we have experienced as a child without us aware of it. we place ourselves in the role of our parents from our childhood. So we repeat ourselves unconsciously what happened earlier in our lives. The repetition compulsion ensures that our child do the same thing as happened to us early in our lives. This we must be aware. We have to feel what it did to us.

  5. This is a great reminder for all parents of all aged children. I am so glad you ended the article with supporting the child from anger and frustration to sadness and disappointment. This to me is the most important element for parents to be able to stay calm and reflect calm. When they think they have to get compliance from the tantruming child, then it becomes the parent’s job to fix it. But when we know that the child’s sadness and disappointment is often what must be, we can live with that. these are such important feelings for children to learn to have and so many parents today will do anything for their children not to feel them.

  6. One of the most important thing is well that we understand our child. Why a young child have a tantrum. In my opinion it shows a deep despair and helplessness. It’s important to try to remember what happened right before it in order to UNDERSTAND what te reason was that drove the child in despair. Than, let your child know with empathy that you know about it. Communicate this knowledge with your child. Thank you.

  7. We all know we’re supposed to “remain calm,” but especially for those of us who lack a secure experience, it’s often hard to identify the mechanics of that calmness in a way that works consistently.

    This article provides a golden nugget in that it renews our confidence to help move ourselves and our children from feelings of anger and frustration to sadness and disappointment. Perhaps because it can be a challenging progression to work through, it’s reassuring to be know that it is healthy and not to be avoided or denied.

    What I love about this article and the related comments is what I love about API: discovery and rediscovery of “how to” information and support necessary to raise secure children – sometimes in spite of my own experiences.

  8. This is such a great reminder of the calm, connected and regulated parent to help pass that on to their child. I think that is always the hardest part in the journey, one that we need to practice often. I’ve been blessed to not only take care of my children, but others as well, and I’m constantly amazed how well children respond and how we as the adult can make such an impact on how children will be able to respond and adapt later. I love the gentle reminder, it’s the quick fix, but the life lesson that will be learned.

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