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7 tips for those tough parenting days

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Little girl sleeping in her mother's arms


Dr Justin Coulson is the co-host of Channel 9’s Parental Guidance, a three-time bestselling author, a TEDx speaker, and one of Australia's most popular parenting experts. In this article he looks at ways to handle those difficult parenting days.

Some days are tough. Being a parent stretches us. It creates challenge, stress, tension, and apprehension. We question ourselves and our abilities. Are we doing this right? If we’re doing it right, why is it so hard?

And sometimes we’re pretty sure we’re doing it right, but the kids? What’s going on with them? Are they ok? Do other people’s children do this?

Some days we wish we could hand the children over to grandma (or kindy) and hide under the blanket watching Netflix for the day… or perhaps the week. (Or maybe forever!)

This might be an option for some of us on some days, but we all know this is not going to be a useful long-term strategy. Life throws us curve balls; moments that are tough, unfair, and definitely random. Whether it’s our baggage, an unexpected problem from outside the family, an accident, or children with challenges, one thing we can rely on is that life isn’t all roses.

The following ten ideas can help you manage you on those tough days so you can still show up as a reasonable parent and adult when things aren’t going so well.

1. Slow Down

Research shows that when we are under pressure, we naturally speed up. We try to get through things faster. We want the discomfort to end. This approach, in our families, leads to disconnection, frustration, and more pressure. The phrase “hurry up” may be one of the biggest connection killers known to parents. But when we slow down, the pressure is reduced. Our thinking becomes clearer. Our connection becomes stronger. And our kids become more likely to work towards a constructive outcome.

2. Deep Breaths

On tough days the pressure can leave us breathing short and shallow. This quickens our heart rate and increases our blood pressure. It can create thought patterns that place us on high alert. A simple exercise is to sit still, close your eyes, and breathe in through your nose for 5 seconds, hold it for 3 seconds, and breathe out for 5 seconds. Do this three times and feel the difference it makes to your tough parenting day in under 60 seconds.

3. Countdown to Calm

Another way to get in touch with the here and now in a level, balanced manner is to do a simple mindfulness exercise that connects us with peace. The instructions are super easy and you can do it anywhere, including in the car. And bonus: the children love it as well.

  • List or name 5 things you can see
  • List or name 4 things you can feel or touch
  • List or name 3 things you can hear
  • List or name 2 things you can smell
  • List or name 1 thing you can taste

Connecting with the senses takes away stress, apprehension, and regret or sadness. It places your mind in the same place as your feet and helps you regain your balance so you can face challenges in a level, safe way.

4. Create psychological distance

When we are in the thick of things we struggle to see clearly. Our emotions can cloud our reasoning and judgment. We make rash decisions or statements. Creating psychological distance is a way of stepping away emotionally and psychologically without stepping away physically - because we have to be near the children for safety/supervision reasons! My three favourite ways of creating that distance are:

Imagine an audience

Have you noticed that when people are watching then you are more likely to behave at your best. Imagining an audience helps you to create that emotional buffer. A fun spin on this idea is to imagine that you’re about to wrangle someone else’s child rather than your own. We tend to be more gentle and considerate towards others’ children!

Channel an inner mental mentor

By pretending to be someone else who is really good at what you’re trying to do (which in this case is staying calm and level-headed on an otherwise very challenging day) you’ll often find that it helps you to be your best you. Acting like someone else changes your thinking, creates space, and helps you navigate a tough day the way that other person who is always in control would.

Mental time travel

Psychologists call this “temporal distancing”. It means that we take ourselves into the future and reflect on the situation we’re now in, asking ourselves to imagine it was over and we dealt with it well. What did we do? How did we do it? This helps us tap into our deepest values and align our behaviour with those values.

Some days we wish we could hand the children over to grandma (or kindy) and hide under the blanket watching Netflix for the day… or perhaps the week. (Or maybe forever!)
Dr Justin Coulson

5. Understand the ‘why’

Our children don’t wake up in the morning thinking that they’re pretty keen on making our life hell. Instead, they find themselves unable to cope. Sometimes it’s the same for us! I use an acronym to help troubleshoot several reasons our children (or us) might be a little challenging. HALTS. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and Stressed. Feeling any of these? Are the kids feeling any of these? Each, alone, is a trigger for challenging behaviour. Combined, they can be a toxic mix that upends our day and makes life miserable. Resolving them can change things up in an instant.

6. Take a Day Off

You’re not coping. Nor are they. Sometimes it’s best to give up on the day, relax, and restart for tomorrow. ‘Chucking a sickie’ isn’t an ideal solution, but a reboot can work wonders.

7. Compassion

The word compassion comes from Latin roots and literally means “to suffer with”. On those tough parenting days when everyone is suffering, it helps to have some self-compassion and to couple that with compassion for a child who is still wearing his or her “L” plates, trying to learn how to be human. It means we see the humanity and vulnerability of the situation in each of us. We recognise that it’s hard. And we embrace it rather than fighting against it. Maybe we hug. Perhaps we cry. It could be that we sit on the floor and play with the plate of pasta our child just dumped there, making a soft macaroni necklace!

There are a million other ways we can manage our tough days. You know what works for you. Perhaps it’s helpful to simply remember that everyone is fighting a hard battle. Sometimes that includes your child or children. Sometimes it includes you. On those days, remember that there are things you can do, people you can lean on, and ways to get help.