Parenting When You Don’t Feel Like It

from Aha Parenting – Dr. Laura Markham

How To Reconnect with Your Child When You’re Having a Hard Day

“Can you give tips on how to stay connected when you feel irritable?  I’m not yelling, but I’m not as respectful as I think I should be.” – Katherine

“Parents have to be experts at reconnecting.” — Dr. Lawrence CohenGirl hugging her mom from behind

What to do when you’re having a hard day and getting impatient with your child

The first step when you’re in a bad mood is  always to check in with yourself and shift your own state so that you’re feeling better. Tough? Yes, but it gets easier with practice, and what an invaluable skill. (Here’s the post on how to regain your equilibrium.)

Once you feel a bit less tense, you’ll think better, and you’ll be able to reach out to your child in a more relaxed way that invites a warm response. Here’s how.

1. Create safety. If things have gotten tense between you, the first priority is always to restore a sense of safety, so neither of you feels threatened. If your child is in “fight or flight,” you can help her relax by summoning up all your warmth and compassion. You might begin with a big hug, or at least with a warm smile.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you….I was getting anxious. Let’s try a do-over….Here’s what I meant to say…”

2. Partner with your child by acknowledging what she wants at the same time that you clarify what you need in the situation. Re-affirm your desire to find a win-win solution by focusing on what really matters, not on controlling your child to get your way.

“Sweetie, let’s find a way to make this work for both of us. I hear you want….and right now I need….What can we do so we’re both happy?

3. Get back in sync with your child using play. No child can resist an invitation to play, at least once they feel safe. Play reconnects us by triggering connection hormones like oxytocin. And if your child is acting out, laughter is often the perfect way to help her shift the stress hormones that are making her tense and difficult. Every child (and adult!) needs plenty of hearty laughter every day.

Of course, if you’re feeling tense, play will be the last thing you want to do. So always start with shifting your own mood first. Then, ease into it. You don’t have to put on a circus act. Just aim for a lighter tone: “Excuse ME, you silly guy, do you think you’re a cat with your face in that cereal bowl?”

Sometimes, though, high-intensity kids get really revved up. To re-connect, they need us to match their high level of energy. This can be especially true if they’re picking up and expressing the anxieties of the adults around them. With kids like this, you may need to be higher energy, even a bit outrageous.

“What do you mean, NO?! I’m the Queen of the Jungle, and when I say it’s time, it’s time! You want to hear my loud roar? Rooooaaarrrr!….Bet you can’t roar that loud?  Oh, my, listen to you!! Oh, my poor ears!  You have a mighty powerful roar!!! Okay, but who’s stronger?  Put your hands up against mine and see if you can push me across the room….” 

This gets both of you giggling, gets out a lot of energy, and completely shifts the dynamic so that five minutes later, you and your child are a team once again. After matching the high-intensity, you can even help your child down-shift his energy level:

“But can you do a mouse squeak?  I bet you can’t squeak as softly as I can…See, I know mouse language…Squeak, squeak, squeak…Guess what I was saying?”

And what if your child doesn’t respond to play? It may be that he’s beyond laughter, and just needs to cry. Stay as compassionate as you can, and help him soften into those more vulnerable emotions that are driving him to act out. Tears aren’t bad — they’re essential for us to work through pain. Once your child has a chance to cry, he’ll be in your arms looking to reconnect. And I guarantee your day will get a whole lot better.


Dr. Laura Markham

Dr. Laura Markham


Dr. Laura Markham trained as a Clinical Psychologist, earning her PhD from Columbia University.  But she’s also a mom, so she translates proven science into the practical solutions you need for the family life you want.

Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones.

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