A mother of a young toddler recently reached out to me with concerns about managing her child’s behavior. Stuck in a cycle of negative interactions with her child, she was using the only tools that she knew: Spanking and the time out chair. It wasn’t working. No matter how often she spanked or how many times her child sat in the chair, his behavior didn’t improve. She was exhausted, overwhelmed and uncertain of how to change things.

This mother is not alone in her frustration. Parenting young children can be challenging, and each stage includes new sources of stress. When tantrums are frequent and stress levels are high, parents feel angry and overwhelmed. Sometimes they reach for negative discipline strategies because those are the only ones they can access in the heat of the moment. The problem with this is that not only do strategies such as spanking and harsh discipline fail to correct the behavior in question, they can also cause significant harm to the child who is on the receiving end.

A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology in April looked at five decades of research on spanking and found that the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and engage in antisocial behavior and aggression. These kids are also more likely to have mental health problems and cognitive difficulties. The results are clear: Spanking is all harm and no good.

Sadly, though, the release of this study reignited the age-old debate on spanking. Statements such as “I was spanked and I turned out fine” (often with an “lol” tacked on for good measure) fill the comment sections on any publication that dares to discuss the matter.

When parents ask me about spanking and the effectiveness of alternatives, they often make that exact statement. When we dig a little deeper into the subject matter, though, I find that the real issue is that parents feel that taking a hard line against spanking feels like a betrayal of their own parents. They feel like doing things differently sends the message that they weren’t happy as kids. Sometimes they even admit that the threat of spanking overwhelmed them with fear as children and they hope that the simple act of threatening their kids will be enough to scare them into compliance. Often they tell me that they want to change the way they parent their children but they don’t know where to begin.

It’s difficult to reboot your parenting style when you’re stuck in a cycle, even if that cycle is negatively charged and frequently results in tears and stress. Rebecca Eanes, author of “Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide,” urges parents to remain calm when children are acting out. “Meeting a child’s aggression with equal grown-up aggression only adds fuel to the fire,” explains Eanes. “To extinguish aggressive behavior, meet it with calmness and compassion. Being calm isn’t passive; it’s mature. We must be it to teach it.”

Young children act out when they’re upset. Sadness, fear, powerlessness, isolation, loneliness and frustration can all trigger negative behaviors as children seek to connect with their parents. The issue with this is that parents often view these negative emotions, such as frustration, as problems that need to be fixed, instead of cries for help from the child.

According to Deborah MacNamara, author of Rest, Play, Grow, frustration sets off alarms for parents because it tends to present as loud and heated behavior. MacNamara cautions that we shouldn’t attempt to squash a child’s frustration, though, because it is an important emotion. “Frustration is what mobilizes us to work hard at getting what we want or to change the things that don’t work for us,” she says.

Instead of handing out every consequence available when a child acts out, parents should help the child work through their emotions and find a better solution. But how can parents remain calm and focused when kids are yelling, screaming, hitting, kicking and otherwise pushing every button at once? It’s no easy task, but with patience and practice, it can be done.

Here are some ways parents can keep their cool when dealing with a child’s big emotions.

Harness the breathing room. “There is a space between every action and reaction,” says Eanes. “When you harness that space and consciously expand it, you can use that ‘breathing room’ to put out the fuse.” It can be difficult to find that space when your child triggers all of your anger points at once, I know, but taking a moment to breathe before you respond to your child can help you remain calm in the moment.

Many adults struggle to master the art of deep breathing. In this hurried world, we move from task to task without taking the time to slow down and work through our stress. The best time to practice deep breathing is when you’re calm and happy. If you master deep breathing techniques when you’re calm, you’ll be better able to access them when you’re upset. Try the Stop, Breathe & Think app to get started.

Tap into compassion. Eanes recommends shifting your focus from what your child is doing wrong to what your child actually needs. Self-talk might feel silly at first, but it is an effective technique that helps people overcome the negative thoughts that sometimes cloud our judgment.

Try these statements when your child acts up:

  • We are okay; this is not an emergency.
  • I am capable of handling this.
  • I can remain calm.
  • My child needs me right now.
  • This is just one moment.

Set clear limits. Children are hard-wired to test limits — it’s how they figure out the world around them. They are also easily confused by mixed messages. If we set a limit one day but let it go the next only to bring it back another day, children aren’t sure what to do. Too many limits can lead to risk-averse kids who never stray beyond their comfort zones, but too few can lead to internal chaos.

As much as children test limits and push back on boundaries, they also crave them. Knowing the expectations helps them distinguish right from wrong, make decisions on their own and work toward independence.

Setting clear limits and boundaries is as important for parents as it is for kids. With age-appropriate limits and boundaries in place, children and parents will spend less time guessing and more time connecting. This results in positive communication and families that thrive together.

Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, and the author of “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.” You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.

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