The parental journey is a deeply emotional experience with wide-ranging emotions.

Positive emotions and appropriate behaviours are celebrated, but inappropriate ones tend to be met harshly by parents who react, instead of responding constructively.

Such reactions are instant and without much thought.

When parents react, it may lead to escalating situations, especially when the child reacts badly, thus leading to a vicious cycle that spins out of control.

Parental responses should involve thinking through the situation and arriving at rational solutions that often defuse conflicts.

However, to respond as such is easier said than done as most of us were not brought up this way.

It is a skill developed by focusing on compassion, empathy and the present needs of the child. As such, responding constructively must be practised for it to occur automatically.

You will face many challenges in trying to practise this, and you will make mistakes.

It is important to realise this, as the key to responding appropriately begins with self-awareness and compassion towards yourself.

Adapt and respond

Harsh reactions that are emotionally charged or prolonged (e.g. nagging) create unnecessary stress for your child and you.

Often, it leaves the actual problem unresolved, and the cycle repeated. This results in more frustration and helplessness in both parties.

If you feel trapped in this vicious cycle, change your approach. Start by being a role model and manage your own reactions.

This helps to bring actual long-term solutions to current problems and encourages better adaptive skills in your children as well, strengthening their sense of resilience and emotional management.

Avoid reacting with strong negative expressions towards your child’s inappropriate behaviours, instead, adaptively respond to his behaviour in ways that help him understand why his behaviour is unacceptable.

This defuses potential showdowns and also shows him how to handle his emotions.

For instance, reacting to a two-year-old’s tantrum by shouting at him will distress him further.

Think about your objectives first – if it is to reduce his tantrum, then understanding why he is distressed allows you to use an approach that reduces his distress.

This can be accomplished not by giving in to him, but by helping him to understand how to manage himself appropriately.

Misbehaviours are a form of communication and tantrums indicate distress due to rejection or frustration.

Understanding the cause allows you to acknowledge it and to suggest a more appropriate way of expressing frustration to your child.

It’s up to you to set the tone when handling situations, so do not react based on your own emotions, instead, take the time to respond calmly.

Focus on the goal and not the current situation. Consider whether your responses help facilitate or hinder the goal – if it is the latter, change your methods.

To positively deal with your child:

● Respond to the situation, not his reaction.

Stay calm and speak to him in a firm, but gentle manner, even if he shouts or screams.

If he is too distraught, resume your conversation later.

● Acknowledge your feelings.

If you are also feeling distressed and have difficulties being calm, it can be helpful to acknowledge how you feel to your child and show that you would like to work with him.

This way you are modelling how he can also express himself when in distress and ask for help.

● Take a breather.

Suppress any knee-jerk reactions when faced with behaviours that rub you the wrong way. You can take a few deep breaths or a quick time out.

You’re the role model. Handle situations by keeping your cool.

Refrain from scolding or shouting threats at him. Speak calmly and provide support where needed.

Managing yourself

The tough part is to learn to manage your own emotions and control your reactions.

On your bad days, address this first to avoid unintentionally taking out your frustrations on your child.

Find a method that works for you, e.g. speaking to someone, going for a walk, gardening, etc.

Intense reactions based on frustration will escalate the situation. Remember that you are dealing with an immature child who still can’t handle her emotions.

Aim for responses that are calming, and avoid getting overly emotional as it may scare her. Using empathy and compassion will more likely calm her down.

It also shows an example of how she can cope with these situations and that you care about her distress, providing her with a sense of safety and feeling cared for.

Dealing with misbehaving children will tax your patience, but hang in there.

To retain your sanity:

● Tailor your expectations.

Her behaviour varies depending on her developmental stage and temperament. Understanding this helps you be better prepared for her behaviour.

● Give her time to calm down.

Sometimes she just needs a little time to calm down.

It never hurts to give her a hug, ask her to wash her face if she has been crying, or take her away from where she had her breakdown for a quick walk or to a safer place.

● Self-compassion.

Go easy on yourself. It is easy for parents to be hard on themselves for not being able to contain their children’s behaviour and emotions.

Calm down and be kind to yourself. Take regular breaks to relax and rejuvenate where possible.

● Address stress with serenity.

Changes in your behaviour will be noticed.

Be prepared to handle worse behaviour from your child before seeing any improvements, as children tend to test their boundaries with a calmer parent.

You need to persist with calmness and let them learn to accept you this way.

Associate Professor Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon is a clinical psychologist and founding president of the Malaysian Society of Clinical Psychology. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. For further information, please email The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.