Parenting can often feel like a power struggle to get our children to behave in a way that feels acceptable to us. We want our children to act well, but more than that, we want them to thrive. But sometimes it feels as though I am merely surviving the difficult moments and barking orders, which is rarely effective.
I want my children to grow up with emotional intelligence, to feel safe and comfortable in expressing their (many!) emotions—but I also want them to respect boundaries and rules. Personally, I have struggled with figuring out how to do both.
That’s why I’ve turned to positive parenting techniques, hoping to find a way to use those challenging moments as an opportunity to teach and direct my children in a loving manner.
Pulling from a few different resources, I started to implement about 10 go-to phrases that have helped our entire family have more meaningful interactions.
1. “How can I help you get through this?”
When our kids are in the middle of a tantrum, it is clear that they are responding negatively to emotions they don’t know how to handle. Often their disappointment is masked with anger or their embarrassment with defensiveness. I’ve realized my kids need me to remain calm and help them get through these overwhelming feelings they are experiencing.
By asking this question, we provide an opportunity for them to tell us what they need and teach them how they can positively redirect those emotions.
2. “I’m sorry you’re having such trouble, let’s reconnect when you’ve calmed down.”
Trying to reason with a child who is out of control is nearly impossible. When I started using this phrase, I noticed that—my son especially—felt safe in taking time and space on his own and then often comes back to me when he feels ready to talk.
3. “I completely understand why you would feel disappointed. It sounds like you were hoping we could go get ice cream after school.”
This works with really any activity. Disappointment is one of the biggest culprits for tantrums in our household. By simply validating these disappointing feelings, I have noticed an immediate shift in behavior, and we’re able to work through disappointment much more quickly and effectively.
4. “Can you try that again?”
I use this in a lot of situations where my kid’s tones are whiney or harsh and the word “please” is left out. This has given our children an opportunity to step back on their own and figure out how they could rephrase a question or request something more appropriately.
5. “I really want to give you my full attention, and I’ll be able to do that in about 10 minutes when I’m finished with this project.”
This has come in handy as a parent who works from home. My kids constantly want to show me things or ask me to play with them, and previously my response was more along the lines of, “Sorry I’m busy.”
This type of response leaves them feeling disappointed and unimportant. Instead, I find that with giving them a tangible timeframe and sticking to that, I’m able to stop myself within that timeframe and engage with them without distraction.
6. “I get angry too sometimes, and that’s okay, but let’s make sure we are all being safe.”
This puts the responsibility on the entire family, not just the child—and sends the message that it’s okay to be angry, but not to be unsafe.
7. “What do you need in order to be ready when it’s time to go?”
This is a big one in our household since putting shoes and jackets on can take 45 minutes. Since I started asking this question, I have noticed our children will often grab their shoes and jackets before even responding. It doesn’t work every time, but it has been far more effective than threatening or consequences or demanding they listen.
8. “I hear you. How can I help?”
Sometimes, kids just want to complain and need to be heard. Other times, they really do want a solution but aren’t quite sure how to ask. When I ask this question, I am usually quite surprised how quickly we can come up with solutions together and avoid a meltdown.
9. “I really like the way you handled that situation. It made a big difference.”
When our kids can calm down on their own, or manage their feelings appropriately—I try to always recognize that and offer praise. Continued affirmation of positive behaviors helps children feel noticed and encouraged to continue to use the tools we are giving them.
10. “My bucket is feeling really drained, can you help me fill it back up?”
This one I borrowed from my son’s classroom, and it has made a huge difference. It allows us to take ownership of our feelings instead of using “you” statements.
We have also been able to find creative ways that we can fill up each other’s buckets, whether a compliment or a nice gesture.
Since using these phrases consistently, I have noticed less resistance and more understanding between all of us. I still fall short and sometimes struggle with remembering to call on these phrases, but I am much more aware of how I communicate with my children now and with how my responses impact their responses.
By taking an empathetic stance, I feel much less frustrated and like I am a better, more confident parent working on creating a healthier and happier home for all of us.