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4 parenting strategies for difficult days

There are days when this parenting gig is the best one on the planet. Giggles come easily, hugs are plentiful, and cooperation abounds. All seems right in our world and in our family, and our confidence soars.

And then, there are those days – the days when every situation devolves into a meltdown, and it seems like there is a new battle to be waged around every corner. On those days when our confidence in our parenting plummets, we have to reach deep into our parenting toolboxes to find the resources we need to survive.

I’ll be the first to admit that I often struggle with a positive, healthy response to bad days. I make a lot of mistakes, but in correcting those mistakes, I’ve found a few things that seem to work for the season of parenting in which I find myself.

These are four positive parenting strategies I rely on to help me through those difficult days.

1. Understand ages and stages.

One of the most helpful resources I’ve come across in the past year is a series of books written in the 1970s by Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg. In each book in the series, the authors shed insight on every aspect of development a child experiences at each age. Knowing the why behind my children’s actions provides incredible support in choosing the how of responding to them.

For example, in Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender, Ames and Ilg explain why it is that ritual and routine are so important to two year olds.

Because of this understanding that ritual and sameness allow my two-year-old to feel safe and in control, I can respond with empathy when her routines are disrupted and she feels off-track.

It’s a stage – these words of advice are often heard from the lips of more experienced parents. Knowing that a challenging behavior won’t last forever provides me with the perspective I need to make it through difficult days.

2. Connect feelings to actions.

Photo by lepiaf.geo

One of the most profound insights I’ve learned since becoming a parent is a simple phrase I’ve heard from several different, very wise sources: people who feel badly act badly.

When I push the pause button on my own frustration in the midst of an intense moment, I remember that this truth applies to myself as well as to my children. If I am snippy, short-tempered, or terse with others, it is a reflection of emotions churning beneath the surface.

Children lack the emotional and developmental maturity to express their inner turmoil. It is up to us, as the adult in these situations, to sleuth out what the internal triggers are that are causing the external conflict. Is my child hungry? Tired? Over-stimulated? Jealous? Hurting?

When I bear in mind that her actions are not a personal assault on me, but rather an overflow of what is going on inside her, it brings the peace of mind that I need to navigate the rapids until we finally float into smoother waters.

3. Catch them in the act (of being good).

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I read The One-Minute Manager for a graduate level education class. I didn’t realize at the time that the principles of this book would be applicable to parenting, but there is one concept from this business management book that is extremely helpful in family life:  catch them in the act – of doing something good.

On miserably bad days, it is all too easy to micro-focus on all of the wrong. Yet even on the worst of days, there is always something that can be praised.

The switch in my mind flips from negative to positive when I make the conscious effort to catch one of my daughters doing something good . My children can’t help but pick up on my shift in energy and outlook, evident by the way they respond to me.

4. Sneak in some fun.

Photo by Ha-Wee

Last week, we found ourselves trapped inside for three days by an ice storm. By the end of the third day, we were grouchy, cranky, and frustrated. My older daughter and I sat on her bed while she worked through some of her big feelings. She picked up a pillow and threw it on the floor.

I seized the moment and said, “Oh, you wanna have a pillow fight, do you?” Her cranky countenance broke into a grin as she said, “Sure!” We then had a great time bopping each other with pillows while we laughed and played.

This approach doesn’t work in every situation, but I have found that if I can muster a playful or silly response, the distraction and fun dissolves the tense situation. If you watch carefully, you’ll find fun where you least expect it.

Other resources for dealing with difficult days with your children are:

What resources or strategies would you add? What have you found to be the most helpful in navigating those difficult days?

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Maya

    Great post Megan. 2 and 3 work really well for me.
    4 is so hard for me to do … especially when both the kids are really testing me.

    I work on myself first on bad days. It really seems to work wonders 🙂

  2. Julie

    I find #1 really important for me to remember. It is so easy for me to have my boundaries and expectations and sometimes forget that my children are still just children. I need to respond to them with compassion more often. Thanks for a helpful reminder.
    .-= Julie´s last blog ..A month on marriage =-.

  3. Marie

    Thank you so much – I really needed this post as encouragement right now. My daughter is just about to turn two and every other day has become a battle to avoid another Day of Meltdowns. Hopefully, I’ll remember to be more gentle with her as well as with myself.
    .-= Marie´s last blog ..Hello world! =-.

  4. Nicole

    I love your perspective on the bad days, Megan. For me, one of the practices I try to implement is to practice NOT reacting in such a way that reinforces the bad behavior. So often, I can end up being the cause of repeated fits and tantrums because I ‘gave in’ to a previous fit or tantrum. I’ve got a nearly 2 and a nearly 3 year old at home and the line I try to practice with both of them is, ‘Let’s remember that we’re not going to solve anything through fits and tears and unloving actions.’

    I guess this is somewhat of an addition to your #3. Thanks for the encouragement.
    .-= Nicole´s last blog ..Keeping up with the Joneses, I mean Jesus =-.

  5. Nina

    This is the perfect article for me today! Thx.

  6. Meghan

    Thank you! I needed these reminders with a strong willed 2 1/2 year old in the middle of winter and an infant. I feel like I am losing my mind with him and get angry at myself for the way that I respond. I will tell myself to breathe, that he’s 2 and that I won’t yell but then he blatently ignores me, talks through me or talks back and I lose it.
    .-= Meghan´s last blog ..Snow Day =-.

  7. becky @ our sweet peas

    Great post. I too learned a lot from those books. Thanks for the reminder that I need to pick up the 3 year old one! 🙂
    .-= becky @ our sweet peas´s last blog ..What a week =-.

  8. Melissa Gorzelanczyk

    Its easy to remember, “Its just a stage,” when your kids grow out of the stage. Now I’m the one saying it to parents of 3 year olds instead of the other way around.

    Happy Monday everyone!

  9. Erika

    All great suggestions. I feel like I should print this and post it in my house as a reminder of ideas for when times get rough. One preventitive step I take is making sure my kids (and me!) always get plenty of sleep and healthy food. And that we get both plenty of time apart and plenty of time together. As a stay-at-home parent with a husband who is frequently away, my kids and I can end up spending too much time together. A little time apart does all of us wonders. At the same time, if something crazy is going on and I haven’t been available much, a good cuddle can reconnect us.

  10. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly

    Ex ellent post. Megan, I love your gentle and common sense approach to parenting. You’re always so balanced in your wisdom. My mom-in-law introduced me to the Bates books, and they have been invaluable. Like you said, knowing that some of our kids’ behavior is completely normal and even common helps remind me that every thing they do or don’t do is not a barometer of my parenting skills. In fact, I’m working on a post that will include my fave parenting books, and this old series tops the list.

    Thanks for sharing these great tips. I’m off to have some FUN with my kids!

  11. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly

    Sorry – trying to type on a new phone- meant excellent post!

  12. minnesota madre | Sarah Jane

    Love this. Especially the connecting actions to emotions- had never heard it put in the those words. Thanks.
    .-= minnesota madre | Sarah Jane´s last blog ..hip sitter =-.

  13. Kristin Craig Lai

    I love this post, I know that I can be prone to losing my temper so I work hard at finding strategies to keep me from unleashing it on my three year old when she gets petulant (or my partner for that matter). These are all things that float around in my head but it’s great to see it put down so clearly.

    .-= Kristin Craig Lai´s last blog ..I don’t know what kind of person a princess is… =-.

  14. Michelle

    This post came into my reader on a day I definitely need it! Thank you for your recommendation of the ages and stages books too! I’ve interlibrary loaned both 5 and 6 and can’t wait to read them.

    Thanks so much. Have a good week!

  15. tiffany

    This is great post! I worked in the childcare industry doing camps, coaching gymnastics and nannying for 8 years and I have a degree in Child Development. I love when people remember children are little people without all the coping skills for life!

    I have to tell you the thing that changed how I handled a child acting up was realizing that children don’t just act up for no reason. Usually something has happened that has them off their game or has hurt their feelings. A parent out of town, a friend that chose to sit with someone else, not getting what they wanted, stubbing their toe, etc. can all be reasons for a child to act out. A lot of times the just haven’t learned how to cope and express themselves in a socially acceptable way yet so they act out in way we deem inappropriate.

    Many adults still lack the coping skills and act out inappropriately. I am sure I have thrown a fit in my adult life and blamed it on my period, come on learn to cope me!

    So I try to ask kids what happened last night, what did you have for dinner, did you get to play with your siblings this morning, etc. and they usually end up opening up and telling you what is going on. If they are to young to be verbal ask the parents or ask yourself what is different here. Acknowledge their feelings, at some ages you have to name their feelings for them (i.e. Oh it looks like you are frustrated can I help you figure this puzzle out?) Then you can strategize together to make the rest of the day better.

    Sorry for the long reply! Love this post!

  16. Becky

    I enjoyed watching my husband try out #4 last week when our son was feeling down about something at school. What a great way to build unity in the family (together against the world!) and turn tears to hysterical laughter! It’s not as easy for me, but seeing the results makes it worth the effort!
    .-= Becky´s last blog ..really? =-.

  17. Ann Voskamp@Holy Experience

    Dearest Megan…. Ah, thank you!

    We already curled up with a snuggle or two in our Peace Retreat today

    and there is nothing like a wink, a tickle with a giggle and curling up on the couch with a storybook, us all tucked together… Good for Mama too 🙂

    I so appreciated this post! Your heart! Always wisely tending to children’s hearts with a heart of grace. You shine, my friend….

    All’s grace,

  18. Ann Voskamp@Holy Experience

    Dearest Megan…. Ah, thank you!

    We already curled up with a snuggle or two in our Peace Retreat today

    and there is nothing like a wink, a tickle with a giggle and curling up on the couch with a storybook, us all tucked together… Good for Mama too 🙂

    I so appreciated this post! Your heart! Always wisely tending to children’s hearts with a heart of grace. You shine, my friend….

    All’s grace,
    .-= Ann Voskamp@Holy Experience´s last blog ..What all of the Universe is Trying to Tell You Today =-.

  19. Cara

    This was definitely a timely article for me. I’ve got a strong-willed 2 1/2 year old that can really wear me out. I’ve read several of the books you mentioned (and I’m checking out the rest at the library tomorrow!). Another book I liked was She’s Gonna Blow by Julie Ann Barnhill. There’s some great info there on helping to deal with your own frustration before you completely lose it and become the scream-y mommy.
    .-= Cara´s last blog ..Menu Plan Monday, February 1 =-.

  20. Kayla

    Thank you so much for this post as I most certainly experience those frustrating days with my almost one year old. I am so thankful for this post!
    .-= Kayla´s last blog ..Pig tails! =-.

  21. becky

    thanks for your advice – I’m checking some of those books out. There is a reason why our son has been known as “Raptor” – of course I guess we all have raptor days – LOL

  22. Larry Cohen

    Thanks for letting people know about Playful Parenting! I suddenly had lots of new subscribers to my newsletter, so I asked them why, and they pointed me to your great blog. All the best, Larry

  23. Anna

    I don’t have children but spend a great deal of time with my toddler niece and this is SO helpful! Thank you for writing on this topic!
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..Five Ideas for Getting More from Your Wardrobe =-.

  24. se7en

    Great post!!! Love it!!! When all else is failing, specially at the end of the day I haul out my camera and take pictures of everyone who is doing something right – My kids are still small enough to know this is a great reward and leap into action, zip through their routine and hop into bed… all to get their photo taken while reading their favorite book – works every time!!! (I should blog this!!!)
    .-= se7en´s last blog ..Sunday Snippet: Se7en Valentine Bible Games… =-.

  25. Andrea @ The Train To Crazy

    Megan, I love 1 through 4. Definitely important. And if those fail try this;

    5. lock yourself in your room and let them do whatever they want 🙂 Okay, maybe not, but take a time out! Mom’s need it too sometimes. During my time outs I get quiet, pray and refocus. Works wonders for my attitude, which is half the battle.
    .-= Andrea @ The Train To Crazy´s last blog ..Clothing Sew Along: Week 1 =-.

  26. Lisa @ WellGrounded Life

    Fantastic article– I especially appreciate that your thoughts hit the core issues at hand and helped try to dissolve and turn the scene around.

    What’s been helpful for me on “those” days is to try and radically shift my mood and energy. I find that when things begin to spiral, I spiral– without even realizing it, I get anxious, louder, more likely to overreact.

    If I can really slow myself down and almost proceed with an exaggerated calm manner– soft voice, slow movement, gentle touches, get right down on their level and choose to react slowly and quietly, make a point to smile authentically at them (especially if I can’t muster the silly- which is a great suggestion, by the way)– the energy sometimes shifts so quickly, I even surprise myself!
    .-= Lisa @ WellGrounded Life´s last blog ..10 Secrets of a Health Coach =-.

  27. Tina @ Car Ride On Toys

    Wow Megan, thanks for putting things in perspective in such a gentle way! I had my granddaughter for the weekend and she’s in the throes of the “terrible twos”. She’s not necessarily bad but she’s incredibly busy. I was a little frustrated with myself because I felt like I was being a little too short with her at times. I wish I had read #3 – catch them in the act of doing something good earlier in the day. Thanks again for the great post!
    .-= Tina @ Car Ride On Toys´s last blog ..A Power Wheels Tractor That Can Perform On Any Surface =-.

  28. Pot Luck Mama

    “When I bear in mind that her actions are not a personal assault on me, but rather an overflow of what is going on inside her, it brings the peace of mind that I need to navigate the rapids until we finally float into smoother waters.”

    I do so often make it all about me…:)

    Will try and call smooth waters to mind next time kiddo’s trying my nerves!
    .-= Pot Luck Mama´s last blog ..Spiritual Preparation =-.

  29. Tina

    I’m going to be honest. I’m having one of those days, and reading this article has helped me a lot. Thanks for posting.

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