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I Finally Figured Out a Way to Stop Yelling at My Toddler

Photograph by Twenty20

Right after my daughter was born, I found, like many new moms, that life had changed drastically. You’d think my mom friends would sympathize, but whenever I complained, they always said, “Just wait until you have a toddler.” I was convinced they had to be wrong. How much easier would it be if my daughter could walk and talk, and was potty-trained?

Turns out, they were right.

Oh, for the days when my daughter could barely crawl and couldn’t talk back! My daughter is now in the ever-accurately-named “Threenager” stage—and the baby years were nothing compared to this. Nothing.

The hardest part of these years for me is not getting angry at my toddler when she's being, well, a toddler. There have been many times when I haven't reacted in a way that made me proud of my parenting skills—far from it! Worst of all is the guilt I feel after responding to my daughter in anger. But it’s just so hard.

Here's just one example: My daughter loves to help “start the car.” Her dad (of course) started this tradition, where he would let her push the button to start the car. Well, that evolved into turning on the wipers, the headlights, adjusting the music and the air coming through the vents. She loves this little ritual, and on a day when I’m not in a rush, it’s no big deal.

But there was one morning when I was in a hurry. I put her in her seat and tried to buckle her in. “I WANT TO START THE CAR!” she wailed. I calmly told her no, we didn’t have time today. Of course, she had a total meltdown, and I had to buckle her in squirming and crying. I ended up yelling at her to calm down, to cut it out, that we don’t always get what we want, do we? A few miles into my commute, I was besieged with guilt as she whimpered in the back seat.

I had to find a way to retrain my brain when my daughter was being frustrating.

As I kept driving, I realized that my daughter did not understand why this particular morning was different than any other mornings. She didn’t know we were late and I had a morning meeting with my boss. All she knew was that, for no reason at all, she was not allowed to start the car, and that was upsetting. I didn’t like making her cry, and I really didn’t like myself when I yelled at her. But that incident was just one of many similar instances throughout her childhood.

All I knew was I didn’t want that to happen again.

I had to find a way to retrain my brain when my daughter was being frustrating. I wanted to have that moment of clarity sooner, instead of after I’d yelled at her. I tried several things, like counting to 10 (just made me madder) or deep breathing (just activated my fight-or-flight mode). At the end of the day, the only method that worked best for me was repeating a mantra, along with a couple of physical and mental calming methods.

So, now, when my daughter is making me mad, my mantra is, "Someone has to be the adult here." She's only 3½. She doesn’t understand. She has big feelings and she needs someone responsible to help her manage them, not make them worse.

While repeating this in my head, or even aloud, I squeeze something with both hands really hard. Typically, this is the steering wheel of the car. I squeeze as hard as I can for a count of 10, and release. You’d be surprised how well this works in traffic jams, too!

If these two things aren’t working, I bring out the “big guns”— a mental visualization of petting my cat. If I close my eyes and imagine the weight of my big tomcat on my chest and how his fur feels when I pet him, it allows me a moment to check myself before I react to my daughter in anger.

Not only does this method make me a better parent, I feel better about myself. The lack of guilt that always comes after an outburst has been a serious blessing. My commitment to not reacting in anger to my daughter’s toddler behavior is just another way to not only take care of my daughter, but to take care of myself, too.

I'm definitely still nowhere close to a perfect parent, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.

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