How I've Learned To Talk My 3-Year-Old Son Down From His Tantrums

Using a 'controlling voice' with your kids is not the answer to successful parenting, a new study finds, but saying 'sorry' might be.
Vector cartoon illustration of little sad crying boy, cursing his beloved parents. Family quarrel. Angry parents. Wrong education, psychology
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Vector cartoon illustration of little sad crying boy, cursing his beloved parents. Family quarrel. Angry parents. Wrong education, psychology

Teenagers are more likely to argue with a mother who uses a “controlling voice”, according to new research.

The Cardiff University study found that parents who wanted their children to cooperate got better results when they sounded “supportive”, rather than angry.

It also revealed kids were less likely to do their homework when their mums, specifically, spoke with a pressurising tone.

While the research was looking at the reactions of 14 and 15-year-olds, as a parent of two young kids aged three and seven – I can relate.

I know that nagging my kids and sounding exasperated doesn’t get me anywhere – and if my three-year-old is having a tantrum, the worst thing I can do is shout.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned that the best way to talk him down from that angry, beating-fists-against-the-wall place is to be soft and gentle, and to empathise. I’ve taken to saying, “I know. I understand. You’re so upset.” After that, nine times out of 10, he’ll fall into my arms for a cuddle.

Of course, sometimes he’s so far gone that he can’t be reconciled – and the same goes for my daughter, who once became so incensed that I’d asked her to take her raincoat off that she gave herself a nosebleed.

Research tells us this is because young kids struggle with self-regulation – leaving them unable to calm themselves down in a difficult or frustrating situation.

“I’ve taken to saying, “I know. I understand. You’re so upset.” Nine times out of ten, after that he’ll fall into my arms for a cuddle.”

Reading the Cardiff University study made me realise that these ‘classic’ points of family tension – trying to get a child to do their homework, or get ready for school in the morning – are most successful when delivered in an encouraging and calm way.

“If parents want conversations with their teens to have the most benefit, it’s important to remember to use supportive tones of voice,” report author Netta Weinstein said. “It’s easy for parents to forget, especially if they are feeling stressed, tired, or pressured themselves.”

She added: “Adolescents likely feel more cared about and happier, and as a result they try harder at school, when parents and teachers speak in supportive rather than pressuring tones of voice.”

One thing I’ve tried to do whenever I catch myself barking, “Put your shoes on!” for the 25th time (at 8.30am) is to apologise afterwards. Almost every walk to school features me, at some point or other, telling my kids that I’m sorry for being grumpy or stressed, and that I love them.

It doesn’t put me in the running for Parent of the Year (because ideally, I’d never lose it in the first place), but in terms of helping children identify and understand their feelings, psychologists advise talking through what led you to react in the way that you did.

There’s even a whole bulk of research around the idea of ‘Inuit parenting’ – an approach where adults control their anger, and never show irritation or frustration with their kids. They don’t shout at small children and view speaking to them in an angry voice as “inappropriate”.

I can’t promise to succeed at being an inuit parent, but I can promise to at least try and stay calm and supportive. Failing that – I’ll say sorry. Again and again.