How to Stop Over-Reacting as a Parent -- Sometimes

Most parents have a nasty habit of over-reacting. Variations occur in frequency and intensity of course, but most of us have been guilty more times than we care to admit. When I was teaching school (before children), my patience seemed endless. I could not understand how parents could get so hysterical over their children's minor infractions of conduct. After all, children make mistakes; mistakes are just part of childhood.

That was twenty years ago. I am now much older and two children wiser. My patience now has limits. I became one of those parents who has behaved in an embarrassingly ridiculous fashion over minor infractions. Why do we tend to over-react to our children's mistakes? One reason is that we often view mistakes as faults. Most unacceptable behavior is the plain old mistake variety. Children are not miniature adults acting childishly. Children are inexperienced and they have to learn all that is expected of them.

How many times do I have to tell you?

For instance, when a child writes on the wall for the first time, that is a mistake. Children have to be taught which surfaces are acceptable for colored markers and which are not. Just because they have been told once, doesn't mean they have learned. How many things did you learn in only one lesson? Children need to be told over and over in different ways; they need opportunities to learn from experience. Mistakes are part of the experience.

That was a fault! You did it on purpose.

A fault is an "on-purpose" behavior that may indicate an underlying problem. The child acts without regard for consequences (they knew better but wanted to do it anyway) or does something that is intended to hurt or get even with someone (Mom was on the phone too long so I marked all over the sofa). It is easy to get upset about faults, they are usually shocking. Over-reacting in such situations usually means "punishing" the child, but punishment deals only with the behavior, not the problem.

Self-control -- right after this meltdown!

After the initial shock, reasonable constructive efforts are required to deal with the underlying problems. Such control is often difficult for parents to find in these situations. Before children, I did not understand how hard it would be. Everything a child does tends to be of critical importance to a parent (especially the first time around.) Too often we see our child do something and instead of thinking, "This is just a typical four-, eight-, or twelve-year-old mistake," we project the situation to twenty years from now and think, "Oh no, my child is going to do this forever."

Parenting Is Not Rational

Rationally we know better but who ever said parents are rational? Parenting is an emotional experience. Finding the self-control necessary to handle mistakes is not quite as difficult if we learn to see behaviors as simple mistakes. When a child makes a mistake, it is from inexperience or faulty judgment. Those are the times when we can teach our children, when we can show them what we consider to be acceptable behavior, what we consider to be unacceptable, and why.

From the beginning, children need to hear the following words used to describe behaviors:

  • acceptable
  • unacceptable
  • appropriate
  • inappropriate

Learn to think.

If we are hysterical over mistakes, we will teach the child how to make us hysterical. We have to tell ourselves, "This is just a mistake, now what does my child need to know to avoid this mistake again." We have to think about several things.

  1. How to teach our children the appropriate behavior required.
  2. How to make amends for mistakes
  3. How to allow them to experience the consequences of their own actions.

At this point, we are thinking, instead of reacting.

But, I can't think!

This brings us to the other reason parents over-react. It is not easy to think clearly with the commotion of children. We are coping with other things in addition to the kids. These "other things" often leave us feeling tired, frustrated, angry, depressed, exhausted, etc. -- all of which can prevent rational responses. Children do not pick the best times to make mistakes. We do not always react the way we intended. Parents make mistakes, too. Fortunately, we can try again.

APA Reference
Gibson, E. (2019, August 10). How to Stop Over-Reacting as a Parent -- Sometimes, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Last Updated: August 10, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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