You Can Be Kind. They Can Be Angry.

Or sad, or upset, or think it’s not fair….

One of the biggest misperceptions I had about parenting, which has taken years to unravel, was that if I was calm and reasonable, my kids would Get It and they too would be calm and fine with whatever limit I was setting.  In fact, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I believed one of my jobs was to keep my kids from being angry, upset or sad.  I equated this with being a good mom.

It seems a little silly when I write it out now, that I thought my kids wouldn’t be upset at not being able to do what they want…but perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. Do you think you’re responsible for making your kids happy?  If so you may wind up stuck in the same difficult situation for setting limits.

You start out with the goal of being a connected, respectful parent, and instead wind up a frustrated angry parent who feels betrayed by this notion of positive parenting, because dangit – if you’re being kind why are they being angry!?

Learning to Set Limits Kindly and Firmly

Here’s an example of trying to set limits with this misperception:

Follow me down this trail. It won’t be familiar to all of you, but if you’ve got problems with setting limits, your own path may have looked something like this at times.

Child does something I want them to stop doing.

I set a limit (You need to stop ‘XYZ’)

Child is upset, angry or sad.

This pushes my buttons.  Now I’m at cross purposes with messages in my brain that say both:

::I must set limits and be a strong leader:: and ::I must not make my child angry, upset or sad::

Brain wiring starts to smoke and fizzle. Child keeps crying/yelling/protesting.

Brain equates yelling and crying with Danger and Bad Things and begins sending emergency signals: Make this stop! Child is crying! Dowhateveryouneedtodotomakethisstop! Danger! Danger! Ack! Ack! Ack! Yelling! ! !Emergency! You don’t know what to do!!! Ack! Ack!

Ability to think clearly rapidly declines as adrenaline rises.


Not wanting to back down on whatever limit I set AND beginning to desperately want my child to stop being so loud and chaotic, I finally SNAP and YELL!

And now I, who wanted be a calm parent and make good choices, have yelled and had a mama temper tantrum causing more anger and more upset….

Have you been down that route? (Note: This sequence is totally simplified. Obviously this is not the way every mama meltdown has occurred, and some kids really do get really angry, which is intense no matter how you feel about anger.)

Learning to Respectfully Set Limits

Oh, boy have I had to learn a lot about limit setting. I’m still learning.

I get a bit freaked out by anger.  My own emotions start to flood when I’m being yelled at and it gets harder and harder for me to think straight. This wiring and the messaging that I had to keep my kids happy at all costs had to be disconnected so I could function as an effective parent.

6 Ways I’ve Learned to Set Limits:

  • I see frustration and facing limits as something that helps my children build resilience.
    “…we need to help our children develop resilience.  This means they need to practice coping skills, and therefore need some challenges to practice these skills with.”
  • I try to let them feel their emotions without having to “fix it” for them.
    As adults and as kids we want validation that we’re not crazy for feeling what we’re feeling, and usually we don’t want someone coming in and fixing it all – we want people to believe in us and believe we are capable of working through our own frustrations. Sometimes we just want to finish our cry, have that release, and then move on.
  • I stopped trying to make the anger go away with explanations.
    Trying to get my child to stop being upset by talking on and on just ramps us both up more. When a child is upset, they are not in the place to listen. As Dr.Laura Markham says in 10 Things to Remember When Your Child Gets Angry, “When she’s awash in adrenaline and other fight or flight reactions is not the time to explain why she can’t have what she wants, or get her to admit that she actually loves her little sister.”
  • I learned be more decisive, even if I change my mind later.   In her post about how to parent limit-testing toddlers Janet Lansbury says, “Parents shouldn’t be afraid to be decisive and direct, because we can always change our minds (decisively) later, which is actually excellent modeling. “I thought about it and realized it’s okay for you to splash the water out of the pool. I’m sorry to have told you no.”
  • I learned that setting limits isn’t crushing my kids’ choices, even if they protest that it is.
    In the parable of the swing – why kids need boundaries and choice Amanda Morgan says so eloquently, “While the best thing about the swing is the feeling of freedom, it’s actually the boundaries that make the activity enjoyable.”  We need to be the swing’s chains and seat, allowing the freedom to fly.
  • I tell myself to “just keep practicing”.
    Practice doesn’t always feel comfortable or sure.  If I see limit setting as practice it helps me remember that it might feel uncomfortable to set a limit, but I can still do it, even if I’m not certain I’m doing it right. It will get easier. My kids need a leader.  They don’t need a perfect leader, they need a leader who keeps trying and shows them how to rally after making a mistake.

It’s still fairly easy for me to go into “fight or flight” mode when faced with strong, angry emotions, but knowing this tendency in myself helps break the cycle.  I am practicing each day to be the capable leader my children need.  When we have a bad day, we can start over. We learn together.

This post is part of our selection of articles on Learning to Use a Kind Voice Instead of Yelling – check that link out for more ways to be the kind of person you want your kids to imitate.

I’m super curious if any of you experienced something similar in your parenting.  Were you surprised when your rational and calm approach seemed to fail miserably?  How does it feel when you child is crying and upset at you when you set a limit?

Want to add more positive and empowering phrases to your repertoire? Download your free printable of 64 Positive Things to Say to Kids here.

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  1. Alissa Marquess says

    Amanda Not Just Cute You’re so welcome.  I loved your swing metaphor.  Thank you!

  2. Shannon White says

    My 3 year old son acts like a spoiled rotten brat a good portion of the time. He acts like you would expect the typical “get whatever they want” child to act. The kicker? He doesn’t! We aren’t strict, but we aren’t permissive. It’s just his personality, not anything we’re doing wrong as parents. People who don’t have children like that just don’t get it.

  3. Leah Roberts-Doula says

    I hear you on this! I get so tired of the eye rolls and insinuations that I’m not doing a good enough job because I’ve chosen methods that are different than what someone else might choose.

  4. meshnruth says

    Todays world is all about feeling good. IF it feels good do it. So we feel that making our kids angry and not allowing them to constantly “feel good” is wrong. But we all know what happens when kids have no boundaries… no one feels good anymore. 
    I have really had to work through this. It is not my job to make my kids happy. It is my job to love them enough to teach them self control and respect, in a respectful way.

  5. Alissa Marquess says

    meshnruth Beautifully said! I really really love this: “It is my job to love them enough to teach them self control and respect, in a respectful way.”  Thank you.

  6. Jewelee Clarno says

    Brittany Manny – I found this blog a few days ago and I absolutely love it!!! This is part of the reason why I haven’t completely lost it since we came back from Pinetop!!!

  7. Mandymc says

    Thank you so much. I needed this. I am the same. I hate being the one to ‘stop’ my daughter from ‘having fun’ by being responsible. It needs to be done though and with her being a mini me with a temper we do butt heads a lot. Thank you. I’m going to ‘follow’ your posts and read the other links right away.

  8. sandonnmelody says

    Great Article! I have been battling this a lot due to my toddler just turing 3. I have the same reaction when faced with her tantrums and really need to do some work on myself with how to coup with them. this article has given me a lot of information  on how to do just that and helped me realize I cant be perfect all the time.

  9. SDurben says

    I love so much of what you write here- in this post and on your blog as a whole.  You help me to remember that the work that we are doing as parents is real work- trying and sometimes exhausting work.  In the midst of it, I am grateful for a voice that reminds me that, while it is hard, my role as a Mama is giving my children something great…  And I am being changed for the better in the process as well.

    I completely relate to your sentiment in this post.  I look back to when my now-6-year-old son was a toddler and I remember never wanting to tell him “no”.  More and more I am learning that my children do and will continue to encounter disappointment in life, oftentimes in the form of limits that I/we have set for them.  It is a growing and stretching process for me to learn to just be with them and allow that to be the comfort I offer- to be with them in their frustration, sadness, disappointment, heartache- without bringing change to the circumstances.

  10. says

    I also love what you post on here.  And your blog inspires me to share with my kids (7 & 11) that learning is a process, after all, and we DO indeed always get a chance to try again, even if we call it a full day at lunch and start the day over when lunch is done.  Also, had to tell you that inspired by your post about it, Thing 1 and I tried to hug it out today with hilarious results!  Thing 2 wanted in, so she came over for family hug, Thing 1 then wanted out, but I wouldn’t let go, and we were a dancing  lump around the dining room, laughing and turning around as one!  THANK YOU!!

  11. Denali Parent Coaching says

    Yes! Learning to manage feelings is so important–and to do so within the calm, safe place of a parent gently and firmly holding a limit is just right. Thank you for this!

  12. hannahwoolven says

    This is one if the best posts I have ever read. Nail on head for me, thus is exactly how I’ve felt abd haven’t been able to see the wood for the trees but you’ve succinctly and clearly put it into words for me and with some simplethings to do to help myself improve. Thank you.

  13. Roger Plant says

    Yes Rachael, it is up to you and Baz to hold the line, and the earlier you start the better it is for all of you. Firm but kind, way to go.

  14. says

    I love your site so much!  Such great reminders in this post especially the last to “keep practicing”.  We are all works in progress (and probably always will be)  Sharing tonight on the Homegrown Friends FB page.

  15. says

    Wow! I don’t have a hard time being decisive or setting limits, but I DO have a hard time trying not to intervene and “stop” their anger, tantrums, or big emotions because I cannot stand the screaming/whining. They are major anger triggers for me as a HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). My biggest takeaway from this is to let them feel what they feel, remove myself if I have to so I remain calm and that it’s okay. Really loved this!

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