Whole Parenting Family

Four Steps for Dealing with Feeling Powerless as a Preschooler Parent


First off, you’re not alone. Congrats on being a parent who is frustrated with their child of any age. Frustration is a normal feeling that goes hand in glove with joyful exuberance. The one can’t exist without the other.

I’ve written about discipline lots before: Taming Your Tantruming Toddler, Helping Emotional Little Boy, Why Fear & Force Don’t Work, Bad Habits, Big Boy Battles: Loving Discipline, and more under the “parenting” tab.

We are frustrated when things aren’t going as well as when we are joyfully exuberant about how wonderful our kid is. The baby is so cute. THE BABY IS CRYING NONSTOP. It all switches so quickly. First time parents are dismayed and rather shocked at how much time it takes to figure out how to really truly meet your baby’s needs. How to answer his or her cries for help, a diaper, a deep burp, a hunger, a rough adjustment to life outside the womb. I was. I had no clue about why my baby was crying.

Sure, I’d read the books. I’d talked to everyone. But my baby. My baby. What were his needs? What were his little desires? What could I do for him that would assuage his inane relentless crying? Now some babies have acid reflux, and some babies are “colicky.” Mine had/was neither. He just wanted to be held almost all the time, upright, and he seemed to always hide his burps. And he seemed to know when I sat down. It was a hard learning curve to figure out his cues & cries.

Some days I would lay him, screaming, in his crib. I would leave the room hysterical myself. Those hot flashes of frustration running over my body, skimming to my thick-with-feeling fingers. I would rage cry in the bathroom, just wanting to be able to stop his crying, and in turn, my own. Rage not at him, but at the lack of sleep, lack of personal space, lack of my life as it had been, lack of ice cream, glut of ice cream, whatever, you name it.

This wasn’t most days. I didn’t suffer from post partum depression. I never thought about hurting my baby, or felt despair. I simply felt what I know now many new moms do: powerless.

Now that baby is over four years old, and I have two other kids. I no longer feel that powerless feeling with my children when they’re tiny babies, or even little tots. I know now that little kiddos really don’t have the requisite brain functioning to be “bad” or “naughty” or “disobey” until after two years old. Their little brains simply cannot deliberately disregard you. They disregard you and your warnings and your ultimatums and your pleas because their brain simply cannot absorb them! They have no room for them because they’re growing too rapidly to pause for mama.

I demonstrate desired behavior and correct gently but firmly with a two year old. I demonstrate a lot more, and correct more firmly with a three year old. A four year old can handle more mentally, and so when the powerless sensation for me, accompanied by frustrated attempts at discipline, comes on with my four year old, I have a few ways I cope:

1) Evaluate his state of being.

Is he tired? Hungry? Not feeling well? Justifiably upset because he’s heard “no” a lot today? Unjustly injured by his sister and that’s what caused this? Does he have to go to the bathroom?

I’m amazed at how frequently this last one is the culprit of obnoxious tantrums. Even kids who have been potty trained for years like him still need reminders to go and try.

If he’s just awakened and out of sorts, I’ll let some behavior slide a little longer. I’ll offer to cuddle or read a book. I’ll offer him a cheese slab or spoonful of almond butter to boost his blood sugar. I’ll give him space to figure out his mood. But if he’s simply being difficult for no discernible reason, I move to my next step of evaluation.

2) Evaluate his actions.

Is he being rude? Is he being disrespectful? Is he not listening the first time? Is he generally off or specifically reacting to the “no” he just heard about a particular desire? Is he reacting to me, the environment, or his sister?

First thing I do is identify to him what I see that’s going on. You are being rude right now when you address me that way. Or I have asked you twice to pick that up. You are not practicing good listening. Or I know it’s hard to hear that we are not going to the park, but we are not going and that is final.

Once I’ve established the requisite vocab for what’s going on from my perspective, I stick to that. I don’t go off on a lengthy lecture about rudeness or not listening or flapping your dang arms like an eagle hunting at night. I just keep it simple. I save the lecture for later and stick to helping him identify what’s going on by saying it aloud.

3) Offer options and explain consequences.

I don’t like to idly threaten. Who does? It never works. You just repeat yourself a million times. I also see that it dulls the edge of my parenting tools. He thinks he can just keeeeeeeeeeeep on doing the tantrum or not listening or whatever. He thinks I don’t mean it because I probably don’t if I’ve repeated myself a number of times. Instead of throwing out a quick Cut that out or else!!!!! I lay it out there.

You are being rude. You have two options. You can stop being rude by stopping talking in that tone, or you can go sit on the front step by yourself. When you act like this, you do not get to be around us {consequence}.

I cannot make his mouth stop. I cannot make his shrieking stop. Even when I’m super hot under the collar and damn annoyed. I can simply say that he cannot do it in my space. He usually screams NO all the way to the front stairs. If I don’t have full hands or other crying children, I’ll visit him there after a few minutes and quietly counsel him to make the smart choice and stop the tantrum so he can rejoin us.

I don’t offer bribes or promises of fun activities. I just offer him our company. This works for his personality. He is a people person and doesn’t like being shunned or left out. He knows if he choses to behave like this, he is choosing to miss out on whatever we’re doing (probably dishes because I’m always doing dishes).

4) Cool down lecture.

Once things have calmed down, and they will eventually, I proffer a few words of wisdomly lecture. I don’t run a because-I-said-so household so some clearing up why we do things the way we do is warranted. I also know that little kids’ brains are forming and they really can’t absorb too much talking. Their brain’s bridge isn’t developed enough to leap from hearing something to suddenly being rational. They’re totally irrational, even when very articulate. It’s deceptive.

I emphasize choice often. If he chooses X undesirable behavior, Y is the consequence. If he is upset, tell me. If he doesn’t like something, tell me. Ultimately he has to obey what my plan is, but I’m reasonable. If he doesn’t want to try to go to the bathroom, let me know why. Don’t just wring your hands like it’s the end of the world accompanied by the pogo stick jumps. When you’re rude it is hurtful and makes it hard for me to be around you. He is four and a quarter. He is old enough to understand this stuff. A two year old isn’t. A three year old? It’s questionable.

At the end of the day, I know his brain is not rational. I know his emotions rule him. I know that I’m the adult and I am not run by my emotions, my frustrations, my feelings of powerlessness. I know I cannot force him (should never force him) to do things he is not choosing to do. I know that his choices have consequences. And mine do too. Blowing my voice box because I’m screaming at him is damaging and wrong. Losing my temper and not apologizing afterwards, equally bad.

But when I read in the news about sports players beating their four year olds to a bloody mess? I just cry for that child. We all feel frustrated and powerless, but to abuse our positions of power over the ones we are in charge of? Unconscionable. I learned long ago: never discipline out of anger. The child learns nothing and the scars run deep.



  1. Katarina on September 18, 2014 at 2:13 am

    Nell, this is such a great article! I am haveing sooo much problems with my son (17mo). He was about 8mo when he first throw himself on the hands and kneews, screeming and hitting his head on the floor. I was shocked. Paralised. I got so scared, I picked him uo immediateljy. Then I started noticing he would do the same thing every time I said NO to him, until one day I saw him preparing to the the same thing, but he first stopped and made sure I was looking at him. Only then he started hitting his head on the floor. Then I was shocked by that. He was so young and I felt betrayed and manipulted. I let him hit his head and he stopped doing it within few days. Only reecntly he has started doing it again. He screams all the time, almost every time I say NO. This is my only child and I am utterly confused and hav no idea how to act. Naturally, I am inclined to be stricted and firm but I am also very sensitive when it comes to crying babies. We practiced attacment parenting, but now I feel it’s time to move into some stricter discipline (I personly don’t feel comfortable with AP disciplie style) but I also can’t say that being strickt works with my son as he screams so much – all the time (somethimes even if I let him do what he wants). I also feels so confuesd as he is still too small to see any effects ( – results of my parenting) which makes me judge and re-think over and over again each of my decision or approaches which is very tiring.

    So sorry if I “cluttered” your combox with situation and thanks for letting my do it 🙂

    Hugs from an European moma and follower!

    • Natural Mama Nell on September 18, 2014 at 8:26 am

      That’s so hard and confusing–especially being an AP parent. And we all want to make sure we have “good” children, especially our first go ’round. So I can totally relate. 17 months is a time for lots of stating the rule/decision, then moving on with distractions. For my strong willed kids I found that being firm but then moving on quickly at that age worked. His brain doesn’t fire action—>consequence. He is just learning associations so he’s just learning what you mean when you provide directions, and his brain is just starting to form the comprehension parts of it. I feared people would think I was lenient if I didn’t REALLY make sure I was the boss. And now three kids later I realize my firstborn wasn’t even old enough to get many of my discipline tactics.

      It’s exhausting to try to figure out what’s right. When he screams, is he angry or just shrieking? Sometimes my daughter would shriek for my reaction. You certainly didn’t clutter my combox at all!! So glad you’re here and big hugs back. Keep going, mama, you’re his best mom and you’re doing a great job.

  2. Tasslyn Magnusson on September 18, 2014 at 8:40 am

    Nell – one of the best things you offer in this article is the capacity of when you get to that point – we’ve all been there – putting your child in a safe place and removing yourself. Now that mine are older sometimes we call that a mommy-timeout. And there I am demonstrating that yes, sometimes our feelings and reactions get out of control and yes, you can calm yourself down and not do actions you’d regret. Moms can get angry and feel powerless too but then this, my lovely 10 and 8 year old, is what you do to deal with those feelings and proceed accordingly. You are so awesome! I read your blog nearly everyday!

  3. Laurel on September 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

    This is so helpful for those of us who are just beginning with a child in the toddler years. My daughter is 22 months and sometimes it seems like she understands perfectly what I’m telling her and is deliberately disobeying me. But you are so right about where they are with the brain formation. She is beginning to comprehend but she is no where near understanding rationally what I am asking her to do or why I’m asking her to do it. It is hard finding those transitions of when it is all right to expect a little more. These years take a lot of patience.

  4. Gina on September 19, 2014 at 9:19 am

    So wise!! I wish I read this piece about 9 years ago…would have saved me some stress, for sure!

    • Natural Mama Nell on September 21, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      You are so kind. Let’s just say it’s a BIG WORK IN PROGRESS!!!

  5. Around the Web ~ 9.20.14 | 'Muff'in Dome on September 22, 2014 at 10:28 am

    […] This is a great help to us newbie toddler parents (and perhaps seasoned one’s too). How to quit feeling helpless in the face of disciplining your young ones. […]

  6. Sarah on November 10, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Beautifully written, so true.

    • Natural Mama Nell on November 10, 2014 at 4:04 pm

      Thank you. We live it every day, right?