Family life: How to keep your cool
Any parent can lose their temper in front of their child at some point. However, this can be stressful for the child and trigger emotions such as fear, helplessness, sadness, and shame. It’s also common for parents to feel guilty and ashamed once their anger subsides.
How to keep your cool
When you sense your anger welling up, try to excuse yourself for a moment to de-stress to avoid an angry outburst in front of your child. In addition to calming yourself down, you’ll be modelling healthy coping mechanisms for your child.
Here are a few strategies to help you keep control over your emotions and stay calm:
It’s important to put your child’s safety first when you’re angry. If you need to remove yourself from the situation to calm down, make sure they’re safe before you step away.
- Redirect your inner voice. For example, say to yourself, “I’m the parent. My child needs me to help them calm down. Their brain is still developing.”
- Count to 10, take a deep breath, or drink a glass of water.
- Recall a happy or tender moment with your child. This type of memory boosts brain levels of dopamine and oxytocin, hormones that promote positive feelings and help you calm down. Try putting a photo of a happy memory with your child on the fridge door as a handy reminder.
After making sure your child is safe, go to a different room or step outside for a few moments. Tell your little one you need to go calm down, and be clear that you will come right back.
- Call your partner, a friend, or Info-Social (811) for immediate assistance. You can also call Première ressource – Aide aux parents at 1-866-329-4223.
- Tell your child you feel angry and that you’re going to do something to calm yourself down. You can say something like: “Gosh, I feel so angry right now. I’m really hot and my heart is pounding. I’m going to count to 10 to calm myself down.” Naming what you feel (“I’m mad”) rather than why you feel that way (“I’m mad because you’re not listening to me”) will help you cool off.
- Move. Anger causes your body to produce cortisol and become tense. Movement is a great way to release tension. Try running in place, jumping, or dancing. You can also take slow, deep breaths, filling your belly as much as possible. Hold your breath for one or two seconds, then exhale. After three or four deep breaths, your stress levels should drop.
- Distract yourself, perhaps with music or a funny video.
- If you’re with your child’s other parent, agree in advance on specific gestures, phrases, or reactions that will signal that you need them to come take over for a while. Your partner will then know when to step in to give you a chance to calm down.
- If someone can watch your child while you do so, journal about the thing that made you mad.
- Avoid violent gestures, such as throwing something at a wall or slamming your fist on a table. It will only scare your child and make you angrier instead of calming you down.
- Do not use alcohol as a way to calm down. Rather than relax you, alcohol can make it even harder to rein in your emotions.
What kind of things try your patience?
For a short period, keep track of each time you lose your temper by making note of the circumstances and how you reacted. Here’s an example: “My child wouldn’t come sit down at the table. I asked them at least three times, louder each time, and they still wouldn’t listen. So, I shouted and they started to cry.”
You’ll begin to notice the kinds of situations that tend to make you lose patience as well as the physical changes that occur when you get angry (e.g., you tense up, you raise your voice, your heart beats faster). These observations will help you find better coping strategies for your and your child’s needs.
Why do parents get mad?
Your child’s behaviour could be the reason for your anger, but it could also be stress or overly high expectations. It’s important to find the real reason behind your anger to understand your reaction and prevent it from recurring.
Your mood, your energy levels, long work days, and everyday stresses can can be a drain on your patience. That’s why you don’t always react the same way to your child’s behaviour (e.g., whenever they refuse to take a bath).
The more stressful situations you encounter in your day, such as your child refusing to get dressed, your boss suddenly tightening the deadline on a big project, or there being nothing planned for supper, the more your “reservoir of patience” gets depleted. If you find your reservoir running dry towards the end of the day, your child refusing to take a bath may push you over the edge.
Check in with yourself when you get angry at your child to see whether their behaviour is the real reason you’re mad. If it isn’t, look at any extraneous stress factors that could be affecting your reactions when you’re with your child. Thinking things through in this way can help you address the real problem and avoid a repeat of the situation.
In this case, be honest with your little one. You could say something like, “It isn’t your fault I lost my patience when you wouldn’t take your bath. Work was really hard today. I’m sorry I reacted like that.”
How to replenish your reservoir of patience
A great way to top up your reservoir of patience is to find time to hug your family when you get home. It can help ground you in the present, calm you down, and give you enough energy to get through the evening. It can also help your child fill up their love tank.
Expecting too much from your child
Your child gains maturity little by little. Children under age 5 may struggle with impulse control and emotional regulation. The area of the brain governing impulse control, reason, and problem-solving undergoes complex development well into adulthood.
When faced with any form of discomfort, your child is more likely to react than to reflect. If your child is mad and throws a stuffed animal at you, your brain perceives it as a threat and goes into defensive mode. It focuses on your child’s angry reaction rather than remembering that their brain is still growing and that they haven’t yet learned how to properly express their emotions. As a result, you lose patience.
But as a parent, you must adjust your expectations based on your child’s needs and development level. For instance, it may help you stay calm to remember that your child is still immature and needs you to comfort them and help them regulate their emotions.
Should you apologize to your child?
It’s unrealistic to try and always keep calm and never get angry. Patience has its limits, and like all human beings, you’re bound to let your emotions get the best of you sometimes.
However, because their brain is still maturing, your child believes everything is about them. When you get mad, they think it’s their fault and that you don’t love them anymore.
If you overreact in front of your little one, it’s best to apologize and admit that you shouldn’t have lost your temper. Apologizing to your child won’t undermine your authority. On the contrary, it can comfort your child and strengthen your relationship.
How to apologize to your child
Apologizing shows your child that you make mistakes too and that you’re willing to own up to them.
- Crouch down to your child’s level so you can look them in the eye. Your child will sense that your apology is sincere.
- Say something like, “I’m sorry for shouting before and scaring you. It wasn’t nice and I shouldn’t have done it,” or “I was really mad before. That’s why I went into the bathroom to take a few deep breaths and calm down, so I could think more clearly.” It’s good for your child to see that you practise what you preach, such as naming emotions and finding ways to calm down. You are one of their role models.
- If your child misbehaved, use your apology to calmly explain what made you mad. For example: “I was scared you were going to hurt your brother when you pushed him, but I still shouldn’t have shouted.”
- After you apologize, take a moment to cuddle your child or play with them to re-establish your bond.
When to ask for help
If you find yourself getting angry more and more often and it’s affecting your child, your relationship, or your family, consult a doctor, psychologist, social worker, or psychoeducator.
If you feel you can’t control your anger or if you think there’s a chance you could harm your child either physically or emotionally, contact your CLSC, your doctor, or a child protection organization as soon as possible. You can also call Info-Social (811) for immediate assistance.
Things to keep in mind
It’s impossible to parent wisely when you’re angry. Calm yourself down before interacting with your child.
Once your anger passes, re-establish your connection with your child through affectionate gestures or a bit of fun.
Reflect on what really triggered your anger and take steps to address it.
Scientific review: Marie-Hélène Chalifour, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2023
Photos: GettyImages/VioletaStoimenova and Antonio_Diaz
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
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