It’s the final stretch of a long day.  Bathtime, PJs, stories: check, check, check.  And now you’re reaching for the light switch in your kid’s room. Finally — you get a blissful hour to yourself before you collapse into bed.

But then, that little person in the toddler bed pops up like a jack-in-the-box to let you know: There is a monster. There are weird shadows. She wants water. Or, he wants another story. And, of course, “I need to go potty!” one last time.

You’ve had it. Had it with a tiny dictator. Had it with long days and night-time wake-ups.  In those moments, it’s easy to let our strong — and valid — feelings drive our reactions. But as tempting as it is to let that wave of strong feelings roll over us, it rarely leads to the outcome we’re looking for.

It’s tough to put the brakes on when we feel ourselves getting riled up. When my three-year-old went through a phase of demanding that “only daddy” take care of her needs, it not only hurt my feelings but — if I’m honest — it made me angry too. The truth is: These moments aren’t personal. They’re developmental. Making that shift in how we understand children’s behavior is key — not just key to being a great parent but also to enjoying our children more.

So in those intense moments, what can you do? 

Try to imagine the world from your child’s point of view. This strategy is one of nine that ZERO TO THREE recently identified as integral to positive parenting. Imagining your child’s perspective can sometimes feel silly — especially when he is screaming for his dinosaur shirt. But looking at the world through the eyes of a two-year-old is powerful. You begin to appreciate how overwhelming your feelings can be when you haven’t learned any strategies to manage them yet. You start to see how much choosing a shirt can mean when there are so few decisions you can make on your own. And you see how powerful it can be to do tasks “by yourself” when you are just discovering your own abilities. Seeing the world through your child’s eyes doesn’t mean indulging his every whim. But it does offer you the opportunity to understand what his behavior might mean.

Talk to yourself. Yes, you read that right. Talk. To. Yourself. Elite athletes use self-talk to improve performance, and parents can do this, too. In fact, the research on self-talk shows that when we talk to ourselves, either out loud or in our heads — “Rebecca, you were a little harsh with him, take a deep breath and see if he wants the panda shirt or the stripes instead.”—we tend to give ourselves encouragement and support, and also gain some distance from the intensity of the moment. Those are exactly the ingredients we need to respond thoughtfully to children.

Practice strategies to calm yourself. When your child is falling apart, it’s natural for you to lose it, too. But young children rely on their grown-ups to help them regain their sense of calm after a tantrum. When parents get upset, a young child is likely to get even more distressed — probably not what any of us are looking for. So a parent’s ability to calm himself in those intense moments is a big part of positive parenting. What works for you? Is it a “Take Five,” taking five deep breaths?  How about a “virtual X-ray” where you close your eyes and do a quick scan of stress from your feet up to your head, then a deep breath to release? What about just taking a seat? A friend of mine changes her position when she starts to get angry and overwhelmed — from standing to sitting, or sitting to lying down for a few minutes. She says it not only calms her down but gets her child’s attention as well. Win, win! Whatever strategy you choose, try it a few times to see how it feels. New skills take practice so that you can apply them when you need them most.

Finally — don’t forget the power of a break. Children need our empathy, but parents deserve compassion too. No one adult can do it all for a child. It’s a sign of strength to ask for help. Every parent needs it. Every parent deserves it. And that means you do, too.

About Rebecca Parlakian

Rebecca Parlakian is Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE and develops resources including apps, curricula, Web-based materials, DVDs, and more, for parents and early childhood professionals. Rebecca holds a Master’s degree in Education and Human Development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she currently serves as adjunct faculty. Her daughter (13) and son (10) help her remember that parenting can be hard, but also lots of fun, and -- most importantly – that the most well-planned, research-based parenting approach almost never works on your own children.

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