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3 Ways Parents Escalate Child Outbursts

Dr. Seth Meyers


There’s no question that children can trigger their parents when their children act out, leading to overwhelming frustration and anger. The key for parents is to make sure that there is nothing they are doing that escalates their kids’ defiant or otherwise annoying behaviors. Check out these three behaviors parents sometimes engage in which accidentally reinforces the bad behavior, and causes the kids to take the outburst to an even higher level. The last thing we want to do is make a problem worse, so watch out and avoid all of the behaviors below!

Matching your child’s negative feelings

Hands down, the worst thing a parent can do when their child is upset is to react with the same level of frustration or anger the child is showing in the first place. Picture it: Your 12-year old daughter yells that you lost an article of her clothing, and she refuses to get in the car for school until she has it. A common – but faulty – reaction for the parent is to get angry right back and say something to the effect of, “Why can’t you manage your own things? You need to find it now, or else!” While it’s understandable that the parent gets angry, showing the anger only ignites the fire further. When your child has an outburst, you must remain cool and calm above all else. Try saying this instead: “I know you’re frustrated, but getting angry with me only makes me angry. I will agree to take two minutes now and help you look for it, and if we don’t find it by then, you will have to go to school without it. I’m sorry, honey, but that is the best I can do on such short notice, and appreciate the fact that I am offering to help you.” (You want kids who aren’t bratty or entitled? Well, then, when you do something nice for them, remind them to thank you if they don’t think to thank you on their own.)

Labeling your child

When your child is having an outburst, their emotions are spiraling out of control and they simply don’t know how to calm themselves. The good news: That’s something you can help them with! But too often, parents get frustrated and label their child in an already-heated moment. I’ll share some of the ways parents label their kids which end up escalating the crisis: “You lose everything. What is wrong with you?” “Are you angry again? You’re always angry about something!” “I’m sick of your tantrums. Why can’t you just be happy?” When parents make any of these comments, they frustrate the child even more, and this is often when the tears start. Avoid using labels or generalizing too much, especially when your child is already upset.

Comparing your child to another child

Parents, please don’t ever compare your child to another child. When parents do this, it often takes the following form: “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” “Your sister never gives me a hard time like this. Why do you always do this to me?” “My friends tell me their kids never treat their parents this way. Why can’t you be more like them?” No child ever – in the history of the entire world – improved their behavior because their parents pointed out to them that another child was a better child. Instead, these comments make the child even angrier to the point that the parent becomes an opponent. Even though it’s perfectly normal – or even inevitable? – to compare your child to another child in your head, never say these hurtful words out loud. There is simply no better way to screw up a child’s self-esteem than to suggest that there is something inherently wrong with them.

The takeaway:
Parenting is the most challenging job in the world, especially if you have a child who is hyperactive, defiant, or overly emotional. Make sure that you avoid these behaviors above, and simultaneously build in time with friends for much-needed venting. Odds are that you probably need a break today or sometime very soon!

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Dr. Seth Meyers

Dr. Seth Meyers is a licensed clinical psychologist and author in Los Angeles, California. He specializes in parenting and relationships, and he is trained in multiple evidence-based parenting interventions. Dr. Seth earned his B.A. in psychology from Vassar College and earned his Psy.D. in clinical psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. He appears regularly on television programs, including Good Morning America, 20/20, ABC News, The Doctors, Nancy Grace, Dr. Drew and others. Dr. Seth is the author of Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.