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As every parent experiences, not getting the response you want from your child can sometimes cause you to raise your voice or display visual frustration to the point where you are the one who is actually overreacting. And as we (logically) know, rarely does a louder and bigger reaction from us lead to a more calm and resolved situation with them. That’s why, the next time your child is pushing your buttons, you should consider underreacting to the behavior to see if your buttons suddenly become less enticing to push.
“There is a chance that these behaviors occur because your child is getting a kick out of your huge reactions,” psychologist Vanessa Kahlon wrote in her book How To Do Parenting With Confidence.
It’s important to note, though, that underreacting is not the same as ignoring a child’s behavior, Kahlon said.
“When you ignore a behavior or simply let it go, you run the risk of giving your child the idea that they are in charge of the situation,” Kahlon wrote. “While empowering children to have opinions and their own voice is a great life skill, helping children to understand that adults are in charge of situations will build a level of trust vital for future relationships.”
The benefits of underreacting (when it’s appropriate) are that you can:
Avoid escalating conflict.Create a sense of stability and predictability for your child.Provide a safe and secure environment.Help children feel more secure and confident.Help them develop healthy coping strategies.Create a positive and supportive family environment.
How to underreact in challenging parenting situations
If your child runs away from you, doesn’t want to complete a task like cleaning up, or is generally disagreeable with your plans and expectations, try Kahlon’s steps for underreacting instead of yelling and chasing them down:
Use a calm voice.When your child is able to listen, state your expectation. (Like, “I expect you to come out and clean up your toys.”)If there is no response to your direction, add a time limit and consequence. (For example, “I expect you to come out and start cleaning up your toys. We planned to go to the park this afternoon, and we can’t go to the park unless the toys are packed away.”)
“To become better at underreacting, it’s important to develop healthy coping strategies that can help you stay calm and composed in the moment,” Kahlon said. “This might include techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness, or visualization exercises that can help you stay present and focused. It can also be helpful to identify your triggers and develop a plan for how to respond to challenging situations in a calm and measured way. This might involve taking a step back, giving yourself time to think, and responding in a way that is thoughtful and measured.”
Also, tap into your support network (or build one if you need to).
“It can be helpful to seek out support from others, whether that’s through therapy, parenting groups, or other forms of social support,” Kahlon said. “By building a support network and developing healthy coping strategies, you can improve your ability to underreact and respond to challenging situations in a calm and effective way.”
Three times to underreact
During challenging behavior. “If a child is acting out or misbehaving, it can be tempting for parents to react with frustration, anger, or punishment. However, by underreacting and responding in a calm and measured way, parents can model for their child how to regulate their emotions and behavior in a stressful situation. This can help reduce the likelihood of the child escalating their behavior and can help promote positive behavior in the future along with not dealing with a power struggle,” Kahlon said.During difficult emotions. All emotions are OK—but some are harder to work through, like anger, sadness, and frustration. “When a child is experiencing a difficult emotion, it can be helpful for parents to underreact and respond with empathy and understanding, rather than reacting with frustration or trying to fix the situation. This can help the child feel heard and supported, and can create a more positive and supportive parent-child relationship,” Kahlon said.During upsetting events. Bad news can hit a family at any time, from an extremely personal crisis only affecting your household to frightening national and global news. Staying calm is a good way to model managing emotions for your child. If you are overwhelmed, it’s a good time to take a break. “This can help create a sense of stability and security for the child during a challenging time, and can help the family work together to find solutions and cope with the situation,” Kahlon said. “If a parent needs to take a ‘break’ to take care of themselves, let the family show ways one can take care of their own mental health. Children are always watching how we do things!”
Underreacting can be helpful whether you are parenting toddlers or teens. No matter your child’s age, focus on staying calm, modeling healthy emotional regulation, and responding in a rational and effective way.
“Children of all ages can benefit from seeing their parents respond to stress or challenging situations in a calm and rational manner. In fact, modeling effective emotion regulation and problem-solving skills can be especially important for teenagers, as they are developing their own sense of identity and learning how to navigate complex social and emotional situations,” Kahlon said.
Try to see “I hate you!” as a “love tap”
Another opportunity to temper your reaction is when a struggling child pulls out the big guns with “I hate you!” or another cutting comment. Kahlon says moments like these show that the child feels safe enough with you to express their feelings. Thinking of it as a “love tap” can remind you that it’s not personal.
“It can be difficult for parents to see their child’s cutting words as ‘love taps,’ especially when those words are hurtful or disrespectful. However, it’s important to recognize that children often use words to express their emotions and that their behavior is a reflection of their needs and feelings, rather than a personal attack on the parent,” Kahlon said. “When a child says ‘I hate you,’ it may be a sign that they are feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or disconnected from their parent. By acknowledging and validating their feelings, parents can help their child feel heard and supported, even in difficult moments.”