Ask the Experts: How Do I Remain Calm When My Littles Don’t Listen?

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on October 1, 2021, by Mary Gagnon, LMFT, and Clinical Development and Training Specialist for Health Affiliates Maine. 

Question: I have three children ages 4, 3, and 6 months. How do I get my 4- and 3-year-olds to listen without raising my voice and losing my temper? My 4-year-old is sensitive and doesn’t respond well to anger.

Answer: Ah, those early years are certainly a challenge! So much growth, so little attention span and capacity for self-regulation.

You’re off to a great start. Self-awareness is one of the most important tools in your parenting toolbox. An awareness of your child’s unique personality traits and tolerances is another. And, of course, most people don’t respond well to anger, nor do you want to spend your time with your children feeling angry. So, what else can you do?

Let’s start with you. Are you taking care of yourself? Having three children under five is a great deal of work, and it absorbs a lot of your time and energy. Make sure that you’re meeting some basic self-care needs: nutrition, exercise, sleep (a tough one with young children, I know), time with family and friends, engagement in meaningful activities (paid or unpaid, hobbies, spiritual fulfillment, etc.), whatever you think you need to feel whole and healthy. You may need to ask for help in getting your needs met. You may feel selfish or like you don’t want to “burden” anyone else, but time for yourself helps you to be a better parent, friend, partner, and so on. It’s a win for everyone.

Envisioning and setting intentions for the day can be very helpful. Knowing what you want out of the day and how you want to be as a parent that day helps your mind walk that path. So, for example, you can say to yourself at the beginning of the day, “Today I want to show my children that they are loved. I’m going to make cookies with them.” If things go awry, remind yourself that plans don’t always work out as you hope, and grant yourself and your children grace and the benefit of the doubt, and that even if the cookies don’t get made, there are many ways to show your children that they are loved.

Now, about your children. They’re in exciting times in their development. The world is a big place, an interesting place, an unknown and sometimes even scary place. They’re newbies in this world, newbies even to their own bodies and minds, and they don’t know how to read the map. It’s our job as parents to help them navigate this brave new world, to help them feel secure enough to explore. If we’re doing our job, then they’ll do just that…and sometimes they’ll go too far and we must pull them in. They won’t always like it (just as we don’t like it when our desires are thwarted), and we’ll have to endure the inevitable challenges to our limit-setting—tantrums. Young children have less experience in the world, less understanding and control of their emotions and bodies, and though we may not appreciate their outbursts, they’re perfectly normal.

Young children, too, aren’t known for their high attention spans. Developmentally, their brains are absorbing many, many things, and they don’t know what to pay attention to. It’s a parent’s job to help them learn what to pay attention to and how to act, physically and emotionally, in the world.

So, how do you do that? Here are a few concrete tips:

  • Speak to them at their level. This is both physical and mental. Get down onto your knees when you talk to them, so that you are eye-to-eye with them. Use words that they understand. Use short sentences that don’t have multiple commands in them (“You need to get dressed, pick up your toys, and eat your breakfast” is a lot for a young brain to process).
  • Use a firm but loving voice. Your voice should be calm and loving, but also confident and firm. You’re their teacher, and you’re teaching them how to act.
  • Touch (or not). Some children find touch comforting and grounding, others find it overstimulating. Look for clues that tell you how your child feels about touch.
  • Warn them of consequences. Tell them what behavior you don’t like and warn them that if the behavior continues, what consequence will occur as a result. Consequences should relate to the behavior when possible (“If you keep pulling the dog’s fur, you won’t be allowed to pat the dog anymore. Use gentle hands, please. Let’s do it together.”).
  • Calmly follow through with consequences. Again, you’re teaching them. Their education should be calm and matter-of-fact.
  • Talk about it later. None of us can talk about an issue when we’re still overly emotional about it. When everyone has calmed down and is more focused, that’s the time to review what happened. Keep it simple (“You pulled the dog’s fur again, and that hurts the dog, so you couldn’t pat the dog anymore. Next time, please use gentle hands with the dog so you don’t hurt him.”)
  • Repetition is your friend. Kids (and adults, too) don’t typically learn something the very first time. They need lots of practice and repetition. This might be a bit tiring for parents, but it’s vitally important to understand that they’re not trying to upset you; they just need more time to learn what you’re trying to teach them.

Remember that everyone has a bad day, children and parents alike. If you do end up raising your voice and losing your temper, take time to apologize to your child and speak calmly about what happened. They may not understand everything you’re saying, but they’ll remember how it felt to have their parent speak to them kindly and acknowledge their mistakes. It’s a wonderful lesson for when they make their own mistakes, giving them both the blueprint for how to handle those situations and a safe space with you to admit them and try again.

Raising children is a marathon, not a sprint, and you’re bound to get a charley horse or two along the way. What’s most important is that your children know how much you love them. Best of luck to you!

Mary Gagnon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Development and Training Specialist at Health Affiliates Maine.

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