I walked up my stairwell the other day, past the pictures of my children when they were one and three, and suddenly froze. I trot past those pictures many times a day, but for some reason I stopped this time and stared deeply into their young eyes.

My own eyes started to water, as feelings of regret filled my heart. I don’t actually remember many details of that year—it has been one of the hardest of my life. I doubt I slept more than a couple of hours in a row each night. My youngest kept waking up every two hours or so and my oldest was up and raring to go by 5am. Most days ended in tears.

When I look at those pictures, I wish I could go back and be a better person. I wish I could coach myself through the rough parts to be the parent I wanted to be. Actually, this was one of the main reasons I turned my psychotherapy practice into a parenting education one: I needed to know how to do better.

In the process of improving my situation, I adopted a few phrases and questions that have significantly changed my mood, my parenting attitude, and my ability to connect with my young children. I’d like to share those with you:

I don’t need to let this bother me.

This one has really saved me. When milk spills, toys get left all over the house, or water gets sprayed out of the bathtub, for example, I take a very long, deep breath and say this: I don’t need to let this bother me.

Because this stuff happens pretty much every day.

He isn’t trying to make me mad; he’s trying to handle his upset.

One of my children is what some called “spirited.” You may have noticed how much I write about tantrums, freaking out, and calming upset. Well, that’s because my days as a mother of toddlers/ preschoolers was filled with tantrums. I became an expert on preventing, de-escalating, and handling them because I had to! I needed to find a way to throw myself a lifeline.

One of the things I did to pull myself out of my fight-or-flight reaction when one (or both) of my children were in theirs was to remind myself that my child wasn’t out to get me: he was upset and lacking the tools, communication ability, and skills to handle it. It is certainly easier to respond to a tantrum when I wasn’t having one with them.

I wonder why my child is distraught?

Some of the reasons my guys threw hour-long tantrums seemed absolutely ridiculous to me. I soon learned that however silly (broken banana/ yogurt stirred/ or yellow bowl used) the reasons seemed to me, my child had real cause to be mad from his point of view.

What helped me was to get past my assumption of ridiculousness and look for meaning. Often the why came from a deeper place like: he’s fed up that I’m not paying close attention to him, I offered him a snack much later than I should have, and he was done. And some days, children just freak out when the banana breaks just because they have very little experience in life—they don’t know bananas taste the same when broken or that it can’t be fixed. In their world, the banana just turned from yummy to garbage.

Knowing the why helps me have perspective and focus on supporting my child rather than blaming him.

How can I respond in a way that isn’t scary?

I ask this of myself a lot: how can I respond to my child in a way that he still feels respected and loved. In fact, I wrote this phrase on the whiteboard by our sink: “How can I respond in an emotionally safe way so my child knows he is loved.” –From the book Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well by Joshua Straub, PhD

What my children think of me is more important than what strangers think.

I’ve calmly carried raging, flailing children out of public places, not caring about the “stink eyes” coming from on-lookers. I have learned that knowing I’m doing what I believe is right for my children is more important that any judgment I might be getting from outsiders.

Crying is a viable option.

I’m referring to myself, not my children. On a few occasions, I’ve slumped into a crying heap while my children stared at me. It doesn’t happen often, but when I throw my hands up, unsure of what to do, I just let myself feel helpless and sad. It’s very interesting that each time this has happened, my children snapped out of whatever was causing their yells, and came to be with me. I let myself cry until I felt done.

I’ve learned to let my children do the same—to cry until the tears stop. Clarity often comes after those moments.

I need me.

I made the mistake of trying to do too much while raising little children. I realized that in order to still keep “me” intact, I needed to pay better attention to my needs. Being aware of what I felt I was missing, and taking steps to fix that, has helped me be more full so I can share myself with my kids.

Make space for rest.

This takes effort. Isn’t that silly—resting takes effort—but it does. I needed to carve out time to be rested because, wow, small children take a lot of energy!

Calm first. Talk second.

When my children are upset, I don’t talk to them until I’ve calmed myself down first (if I need to).

Freeze. Think.

When parenting chaos is happening around me and I start to get flustered, I remind myself to sit down, take a breath, and consider what options are available. Reminding myself to freeze, then think helps me step out of drama volcanoes and problem solve.

Do you have a phrase that helps you? I’d love to hear that. Please pop over to my Facebook page to let me know. Also, I have created an app full of phrases that help with raising toddlers. I invite you to search for “Taming Tantrums” in your smartphone app store (iTunes: Canada/ United States, android).