4 Effective Tips to Keep Your Cool During Meltdowns and Defiance

Joyful todler

Connecting in a warm, loving way to your children when they act out takes tremendous patience. But research shows that parents who have high levels of warmth and connection along with high expectations are the most likely to end up with happy, well-adjusted children.

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Unfortunately, this can be easier said than done. In dealing with real children, in real life, it often seems like we have to choose: Do we maintain our connection, or do we enforce that boundary? If you’re a parent who is committed to respectful parenting, how do you maintain those boundaries when your toddlers and preschool-aged children push back?

Maintaining high levels of warmth while setting expectations and following through is critical because it supports children in learning that all-important skill of self-regulation. Children with higher levels of self-regulation at age four are more likely to do better decades later in their careers, relationships and personal lives.

Apply these four tips to respond to meltdowns and defiance without losing your own cool.

1. Set boundaries earlier.

Permissive parents are often uncomfortable setting firm expectations and doing what’s needed to help their child follow through. But such follow through is exactly what their relationship needs, and is often what children are asking for with their extreme behavior. Children need you to be the loving authority, where you guide, correct and help them with warmth and compassion. When you wait until you’re at the end of your rope to finally lay down the law, chances are that you’ll do it in a way that’s punitive and disconnecting.

Children are just learning to manage emotions like disappointment and anger; you can only support them in this process when you aren’t flooded yourself. Set that firm boundary as soon as you start to feel annoyed, and then you can respond with compassion when your child gets upset. Allow the feelings, be empathetic and then help your child learn to move on.

2. Extend “olive branches” of connection.

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When you ask your child to do something and are met with defiance, the first step is to make a connection. Does your child need a hug, a joke or to run down the hall and back before she’s ready to do what you’ve asked? Try being silly before becoming stern. This will help you manage your own level of arousal and, who knows, your child may respond with delight. If your attempts at connection are rebuffed, help your child do what you’ve asked in a calm, matter-of-fact way. Every 30-90 seconds, extend an olive branch to see if your child is ready to reconnect. Sing a little song, tell a little story or try a gentle touch. If she rejects the olive branch, go back to being calm and matter-of-fact.

Once children realize things are going to progress whether they go along happily or not, they’ll often choose to do them the more enjoyable way. When children choose to make the best of things, they’re practicing managing their level of emotional arousal -- an important aspect of self-regulation. However, children can only do this if we adults manage our own annoyance and offer connection.

3. Side-step anger.

Many times anger stems from baggage from the past. Perhaps you were once bullied, and when you see your preschooler push another child and laugh when he cries, your brain rolls out a future in which your child goes through life bullying others. While it would be nice if we could just put our parenting on hold for a few years of therapy, this isn’t practical. Instead, learn to side-step your anger. Ask, “What am I afraid of when he does that?” Thank your reptile brain for bringing up this possibility, and then consciously list other possibilities: Perhaps he needs more positive attention or more social tools. Perhaps he recently dropped afternoon naps and that time of day is challenging.

Come up with a plan of action. Set your phone alarm for every hour and take two or three minutes to really connect. Tell stories of people being kind, generous and inclusive, and give him some phrases to use instead of pushing. Set up calming activities for the late afternoon, like a sink of warm, soapy water and some dishes or water toys. If you calmly and consistently correct the misbehavior, the behavior will stop.

4. Restore the connection.

Despite our best intentions, sometimes we don’t handle things as well as we’d like. Perhaps your child was defiant and you lost your cool by yelling or punishing. When that happens, some repair work is needed once things calm down. If things were only somewhat bad, you can let your child know that the incident can be put behind you and things can return to normal. You might say, “Whew! I’m so glad that’s over!” as you exaggeratedly collapse into a chair. Then have a snuggle, tell a story or engage in some fun physical play. Once giggles flow again, the connection is restored.

But if the episode was a full-on power struggle, it’s important to reassure your child in an age-appropriate way. This doesn’t mean abject apologies and wallowing in your guilt. It might start with, “Wow, I was really mad, wasn’t I? I’m learning to keep my temper just like you. I’m done being mad now.” Then, in addition to reconnecting, take some time to think about how you’ll react differently in the future. How can you take a moment to connect before asking your child to do this same thing? How can you make the activity itself more enjoyable? Could you skip it altogether? One thing that’s wonderful about parenting is that you’ll always have an opportunity to try again.

Faith Collins of Joyful Toddlers is a parenting coach, public speaker and classroom teacher dedicated to supporting relationships with the young children in our lives. Her new book, Joyful Toddlers and Preschoolers: Create a Life that You and Your Child Both Love (Hohm Press, Oct. 1, 2017) guides parents in forming mutually responsive parent-toddler relationships. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and young daughter, where she runs outdoor parent-child classes in her Play Garden, and is Co-Director of the Rocky Mountain LifeWays Training.

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