Parenting without Irritation

The more I learn about effective parenting (from observation and from study), the more I realize parenting without irritation is a key principle.  I used to joke with my husband that this would be the title of my parenting book, were I to write one.  As I have watched other moms that I admire, and as I’ve “experimented” with my own children, I’ve found that the most successful parents are the ones who enforce the rules, but don’t get irritated by the misbehavior. Let’s be honest, a lot of children’s behavior IS irritating.  They whine and cry and say the same things over and over and want to do things on their own and tell you that other kids have it better.  The list is endless!  But you’re not going to be an effective parent if you are consistently irritated.  So, take a deep breath and pretend you aren’t irritated.  Learn to tune out the annoying stuff and focus on the cute and good stuff. It’s really a tricky thing, though because you can disengage and not care what they are doing and not “toe the line” or enforce your rules – then you are not irritated, but you’re also not parenting effectively.  So the trick is to monitor and correct their behavior WITHOUT becoming irritated!  You say what needs to be said, “You may not drink fruit punch over the carpet,” “You need to finish your chores before playing with friends,” etc., without going on and on. Here are some tips for staying patient and not getting irritated.  See also Practice Patience.

How to Avoid Becoming Irritated

1. Ignore inconsequential behavior. The majority of annoying behavior is not really “misbehavior”.  It may not be your favorite behavior, but it’s not worth it to draw attention to it (and possibly reinforce it in the process).  Let these behaviors serve as a reminder to give Positive Reinforcement.  A classic example is nose picking.  No parent wants to view this, but many have found that asking them to stop doesn’t work, or sometimes makes it worse.  The best thing to do is say nothing when he is doing it; then find a time when he is not doing it and say, “Thanks for not picking your nose while we talked!  Mommy likes that.”  This may sound a little ridiculous, but do this a few times, without sarcasm and without making a big deal of it, and you will see the behavior change. On the other hand, if you’re asking him to stop all the time you’re not only drawing his attention to it, but yours, and then you feel irritated because “he picks his nose all day long!”  Tune out the unimportant but annoying behaviors and choose to focus instead on the things the child does right.

2.Understand the child’s developmental level and have appropriate expectations. This is one of many places where my favorite phrase needs to be repeated over and over, “That’s just how kids are.”  Kids take a long time to get ready for bed; they have to try to do things themselves; they have to see things or know the answer; they aren’t very patient; they hit others easily and often; they can’t stop talking.  These are normal behaviors for kids, but yes, they can be irritating.  But knowing that these behaviors are part of their developmental process can help.  You have to take the bad with the good, and just get over it.  Certain things are too much to ask of children.  Be familiar with what to expect at each age and what they are capable of. If you’re feeling frustrated repeatedly with a child over a task such as not cleaning up or not eating by himself or not dressing herself, you are probably expecting too much! She may not be ready for that task, and you have to take your expectations down a notch, which can be frustrating, I know.  You really think the child should be able to do this task, and you want to hold on to that and make her do it, but the end result is you’re getting frustrated over and over.  So it’s better to tell yourself, “That’s just how kids are,” “It’s too much to expect.”  And let it go. Sometimes the child will have performed that task last week, but that still doesn’t mean that he can necessarily do it this week.  Children’s progression is not linear; it’s not a straight line up the graph, getting better and better each day at responsibilities.  It’s an up and down line, which is so maddening to adults!  They will be doing something for a while (making their bed, playing on their own, sharing their toys, etc.) and a few weeks or months later they’ve gone back to the old, less desirable behavior.    You always have to remember that what a child can do one day or month he can’t necessarily do the next, and don’t be irritated by this fact!  If he is progressing or focusing more on large motor skills (climbing, riding a bike) then his attention skills may suffer during that time, or vice versa.  This is not a conscious choice for the child, it just happens.  Lots of progress in speech can accompany a slide in a child’s ability to unload the dishwasher without a fuss.

3. Set up the environment for success. This has a lot to do with having appropriate expectations of your child, but takes it one step further  – reminding you to arrange your home and your day so he can be successful.  Look at the situation you are repeatedly angry about and see what you can do to fix it.  Maybe you are not allowing enough time for the child to get ready for bed or ready to leave the house.  Maybe you need to spend more time and attention with him to help him through that process.  Maybe you’re expecting him to not get into things that are at his level, your make-up or cereal boxes, for instance.  You might need to rearrange the environment so he can make good choices.  Maybe you’re expecting him to get along with his brother for long stretches of time.  You have to remember there’s only so long that will last. Be proactive – not reactive! Think about situations ahead of time and how you are going to handle them.  If you’re going on a long car ride or an extra long church meeting, think through what you can do or bring to help the child get through it with good behavior.  What often happens is the parent hasn’t thought through the situation, and the child starts to misbehave, and then gets in trouble or frustrates the parent.  It’s on us as parents to be prepared for what the situation will entail. A quote from The Power of Positive Parenting:

When we see frequent inappropriate behavior, we should ask, “What are the consequences that are shaping and maintaining that behavior? What must we do to arrange the environment so that the behaviors that are in the children’s best interest are properly taught and reinforced?”

4, Reframe the behavior. If you try to understand the motivation behind an annoying behavior it can become easier to take.  A child who swears is trying out those words to see how it feels to say them (not that this behavior should be ignored, just dealt with in a teaching manner rather than a punishing manner).  The child who insists on putting on his own shoes is trying to be independent (and we all want independent children eventually!).  You can also reframe to “Looks like I haven’t taught him the correct behavior yet.”  Then you’re not annoyed by the misbehavior but reminded to teach him the right way to act.  A stubborn child who must get her own way is going to be a very successful adult (studies have shown!).   Looking at the situation in a different, more positive light can help reduce the irritation.

In between writing and publishing this post I was able to apply this principle.  I’d purchased an online winter driver course for my almost-16-year-old daughter and wanted her to watch it.  She had expressed interest in it before I bought it, and it would expire in two weeks, but now she was being negative about it and putting it off.  I was getting irritated and starting to nag, when I realized that she’s nervous about driving in the winter, and that anxiety was behind the dawdling behavior.  Realizing this didn’t change the fact that she needed to watch it, but it greatly reduced my irritation and helped me empathize with her and help motivate her in a loving way.

5. Don’t give unrealistic consequences. If you give excessively long or unrelated consequences the child is not going to learn from them and chances are you will not follow through.  Then you become irritated because she doesn’t listen to you, she doesn’t obey what you say, she’s not made to obey by the threat of consequences.  You feel ineffective and like you have no tools to draw on.  All that can make you very irritated!  You have to remember to say few words, focus on the good, give consequences sparingly and that are close in time and related to the misbehavior and follow through on them.  See Stop and Redirect.

6. Create positive interactions with your child. When your child is having a particularly hard time obeying (a phase over a few days or weeks) this is the time to spend a little extra time with him.  Give him your love and attention and he will feel comforted, but you will feel more positive about him also!  Many days all we do is critique – point out the negative behaviors.  That does not build positive relationships.  That can become a relationship that the child wants to get away from when he can (in adolescence).  You have to point out the good and take extra time to create positive interactions.  Do something that both of you enjoy.  Then you will see and feel the good in your child and not be as annoyed in the hard times.  See Stay Close to Your Child.

7. Identify what is behind or causing your irritation. Sometimes your own issues get in the way of enjoying your children and disciplining/teaching them appropriately.  It takes some insight to realize this, but when I examined my feelings I often found the following factors were at the heart of my irritation.

  • My pride. I am extra irritated when my pride is on the line. If we are at a public event where specific behaviors are expected, I am extra irritated with misbehavior.  When my parents are around and “observing” my parenting, I am extra irritable.  These are different moments for each individual person, depending on what matters to you.  But when your pride is on the line you have to stop and realize that.  Have some insight into the fact that this is YOUR issue, not the kids’.  The kids are being the same as they always are!  They’re just kids, sometimes behaving, sometimes not.  But if I have extra hyped up expectations of them, I’m likely to be extra irritated.
  • My indecision. There are many times when I’m not sure what the right answer is. Should I let her quit piano?  Should I make her sit right by me at the function or let her run around? Should I let her spend all her allowance on silly trinkets?  These are tough parenting decisions, and I feel like I get more irritated with my children when I don’t know what my right answer is.  They keep asking and I can’t decide, or I decide one thing and then question it.  Again, it’s okay to struggle through these times, but I just have to remember the reason my irritation is heightened.  The child’s behavior hasn’t changed.  They are always going to beg for what they want and ask for things that probably are not in their best interest.  I’ve found that I’m less irritated if I just make a decision and stick with it.  Many of these decisions are arbitrary anyway!  Just decide and follow through, and that reduces irritation.
  • My lack of follow through. When I say, “It’s time to go,” and then talk and talk, I can not be irritated that they are not waiting at my heels, coats and shoes on. Of course they are off playing!  They know that “It’s time to go” means “You can play for 5-10 minutes while I talk”!  The more I say things I don’t really mean (I’m going to take that away, it’s time for bed, etc.) the less the children will behave.  And that causes me to be irritated: “Why don’t they listen to me?!” I must remember to only say what I mean and follow through with what I say.
  • Parenting books. Parenting books cause me frustration. They say, “If child is doing X, you should do Y,” and infer that doing Y will make the behavior will go away. They set you up for disappointment!  I’m not saying don’t read them (I am addicted to reading them!) but I just have to keep in mind that any change takes time.  There is no magic cure. And kids are going to be irritating and misbehave no matter what you do.

I want to reiterate that the best thing I did as a parent was identify an overall philosophy (which is what this blog is trying to give you) and not get caught up in the small, frustrating interactions.  When I had a clear vision of parenting principles and things I was trying to accomplish (stay close to your child, have positive interactions, stay calm, etc.) then I could get through the tough times without overanalyzing or getting caught up in the emotions.  Before I had my core parenting principles I felt like each day I was judging myself and my child based on current, minute-to-minute actions.  It was maddening to have to worry so much about what the right choice was.  Once I developed my core principles I could relax a little and avoid getting overly irritated.

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