The Key to Parenting Well Even When You're Stressed

No one is perfect. Not your kids, not you, and certainly not me. I'm a parenting expert, educator, and coach, and I am not a perfect parent. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We all make mistakes and have lessons to learn from our experiences in life. Oh, the messes I've made from time to time!

Each misstep in life has a purpose and causes further fallout for us to deal with. Each misstep is a teacher of sorts. No one likes that fact, and every parent forgets it at times. Whether it's due to stress, the fast pace of life, or our own childhood wounds, there are times when we forget that our child is just a child, and has only made a mistake, not committed a crime.

When a Parent Feels Stressed

Have you ever had one of those over-the-top days that culminate in spilled juice all over your freshly cleaned floor? Before you know it all the stress you were holding in comes flying out of your mouth directed at your child, who simply had an accident?

A reader named Katherine had one of those days and remorsefully admits, "I just yelled at my daughter . . . to get her to listen . . . I yelled at her the way I never should yell at anyone."

When that happens, don't beat yourself up; try reminding yourself that this exchange was a lesson for both you and your child. Life lessons are hidden in everyday life. A quote from Epictetus makes it very clear: "It's not what happens to you, it's how you react to it" that matters.

That's how it is in parenting. How parents react to their children can determine the direction things will go from there. You may disagree, however, after 20 years of teaching parenting I've seen how children learn about life from the way their parents speak to them.

An Important Question to Ask Yourself

There are two basic ways parents deliver corrections and information.

A. One way is to use a tone of voice that reflects all the stress, tension, lack of control, and anger a parent is feeling.

B. The other way is to deliver corrections and information in a tone of voice that's firm yet calm, allowing a child to lower the "I'm not listening" barrier usually raised in response to yelling.

How do you start doing "B" instead of "A"? Begin by asking yourself, "Is the love I have for my child a strong enough catalyst to motivate me to change something about myself?" Of course the answer is yes. Then ask yourself, "Am I using my child's misbehavior as a place to unload my stress and anger because my child is incapable of fighting back at my level?"

When corrections and comments about your child's behavior are wrapped in an angry tone, a resentful tone, or a controlling tone, a child — just like an adult — will do one of two things: They will either stop listening, in order to protect themselves from the intensity of the emotions coming at them, or they'll intensify their emotional reaction to match yours in order to try to get you to hear what they want.

Remember, kids think everything you do is perfect and a reflection of the way things are supposed to be; they don't have enough life experience to know there's a different way of doing things. If you yell above them when they're expressing what they need, they'll yell above you when you're communicating what you need from them.

If you want your children to stop yelling and listen, then model that same behavior for them, over and over again.