One of the most liked comments on my Facebook page was, “Wow. Three-year-olds can be crazy making.”

It can be very hard to be kind to a child who continually pushes our buttons. I know; I’ve been in the “parenting trenches.” I’ve spent hours trying to calm myself when my youngest son woke me up early then proceeded to throw things, hit me, not eat the cereal we fought about making for half an hour, and disagreed with everything I said.

My greatest challenge as a mother has not been about finding work-mom balance. It has been how to stay calm and facilitate growth despite the natural, wild behaviour children have.

Children’s brains are growing… even when they are freaking out. If we freak out too, the part of their brain that is reactionary will grow, if we can stay calm, the part that governs rational thought will grow.

Even as a psychotherapist who knows how important it is, even though I know I want to be calm, wow, it is hard to do. Really hard, sometimes. So to help me stay focused on maintaining the calm, I ask myself one question every day: what is my nice-to-nag ratio today?

It is important to strive to be nice.

“Your ability to enjoy your child may be the most important factor in his development,” says Laura Markham, PhD, author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. I remember staring at that quote in Dr. Markham’s book. She is so right. Every family who has come to see me in my practice with “misbehaving children” has had a very LOW nice-to-nag ratio. Sometimes, the nice is almost zero.

Children use their behaviour to communicate until they can find the words to express themselves and complex feelings. Unfortunately, it is easy to fall into a pattern where parents (and teachers) are being corrective for the bulk of any of their communication to that misbehaving child: “Stop it! Why are you doing that? Why won’t you listen?”

It can be hard to be nice to a child who, in your mind, is always blowing it.

If we can stop ourselves from hurting/ scaring a child or continually being on that child’s back when they need direction, we won’t be contributing to their negative self-talk. Children push away from their parents when there is too much wounding. Do you like to be around people who are continually on your case? Neither do your children.

To deal with your own anger so you can work on your nice-to-nag ratio, you need to change from the freaking-out to checking-in part of your mind. The easiest way to do this is to create an anger plan with steps that help you calm down.

Here’s my own anger plan you can use as an example:

1. Choose a visual cue as a reminder to STOP.

The visual cue I use to begin the shift is a STOP SIGN. I also put my hand up and say “stop” out loud.

2. Slow the situation down. DROP, and ROLL

Ninety-five percent of the time, the event causing tempers to flare is not an emergency. Make a physical motion which reminds you to slow down and breathe. I DROP into a chair and say “breathe sister.” I use the word ROLL to remind me to using rolling breaths; slow, deep, without holding my breath between exhale and inhale.

If there is an emergency and the kids are in physical danger, manage that first and then calm down.

3. Speak less, think more. SHUT UP and CALM DOWN (sorry Mom)

We cannot make sense when we are emotionally flooded; the part of the brain that reacts will be in control. I silently tell myself to shut up until my responsive, rational words can make it out. I say this to the kids: “I am taking a moment to calm myself down. I will talk again when my brain stops freaking-out and starts checking-in.”

This shift to our rational mind turns, “What the hell do you think you are doing??!!” into “I am angry you hit your brother. I also see you are very frustrated with him. Let’s sit on the sofa and figure out what is going on here. I want to hear from both of you and see how we can do this differently next time.”


So remember this: STOP ∙ DROP ∙ ROLL ∙  SHUT UP ∙  CALM DOWN next until you can use rational words.

These steps are likely to have the best effect if we engage in a process to understand what gets our blood boiling and why—you can use journaling, talking with your spouse, or even the occasional visit to your own psychotherapist to help with this. It is also important to have an outlet valve for the anger you calmed down. Going out with friends, singing, writing, and dancing like nobody’s watching are all ways you can do this.

What a gift to you and your children! By modelling this process, you will be teaching them how to self-regulate their own anger.