In a new University of Michigan survey of 2,044 parents who have kids under 18, 47% want to be more consistent with discipline and put solid boundaries and limits in place — giving children a roadmap for their behavior and our expectations. But what is the right approach in developing firm boundaries that will stick? How do we know we’re saying the right things? I found an expert with a mantra to help in Polly Ely, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Parent School

Let’s break down her simple mantra that can transform chaos to calm and end sibling rivalry in your house.

You can be mad, but you can’t be mean.

Where does the mantra “You Can Be Mad, But You Can’t Be Mean” come from?

The phrase originally came from Ellen Dodge, social-emotional education pioneer and founder of Kimochis (the toy line with feelings inside). This mantra helps to establish boundaries and hold them. It’s all about teaching kids that you can feel anything you want without letting anyone become a target of those feelings. Meanness can’t be the next step, and lashing out is never the next step when you’re mad. It is the beginning of understanding boundaries when big emotions show up.

5 Reasons Why This Family Mantra Works So Well

1. This family mantra is bidirectional

It works in two directions to help de-escalate conflict by showing kids that we are all playing by similar rules (parents and kids alike). This starkly contrasts homes like many of us were raised in, where rules are one-directional, e.g., parents set rules, and kids are expected to get in line.

2. A family mantra can provide a framework to teach sibling revelry instead of rivalry.

Instead of playing judge and jury, it helps everyone back up and understand their part in the mess. As a parent, you can help each kid figure out their piece in the action individually. Then, with their sibling, help them try and figure out what their part of the mess was and how they can work on that together. It’s an excellent place to help kids understand when they are getting mean to take that time out. To breathe, set a boundary with their sibling, and own their part in whatever happened. This helps to teach accountability, which can benefit every child in practicing again and again and again.

A straightforward question when they make a mistake is to say — what would you do differently next time? Suppose you can create a culture where they’re constantly repairing with each other. In that case, they’re continually rewriting, and then they ultimately get into a place of expressing their feelings to each other; it can make a big difference.

3. This family mantra helps kids identify their triggers

Usually, when there is a big reaction, something is happening underneath. Assisting kids in acknowledging that and seeing their feelings for what they are can allow them to dissipate. Remind yourself there’s nothing to do here except to get your kid to move that feeling through their body so they can heal themselves.

4. A family mantra helps to process and deal with your resentments

There is a tremendous amount of unconscious grief that goes on inside of every parent, whether they’ve just left the workplace and are now working at home or they just lost the freedom they had to do their days as they wish. So many parents need to process how much grief is underneath the anger that they feel —grief around the loss of their freedom. And that is taboo for a lot of people to talk about. But it lives inside of every one of us. 

The mantra reminds us to make space to feel and process that grief, whether with friends, our partners, or in therapy. Honoring that parenthood is an entirely different way of being is an important thing to do. Otherwise, the resentment builds and leads to anger. And nobody wants to walk around feeling compressed, irritable, and sharp all the time! Parents deserve self-compassion when these feelings arise.  

5. Being kind and calm can be contagious

Humans are absorbent beings. Once somebody gets within five to 10 feet of our energy field, they’re absorbing it, breathing our air, and being affected by and changed by us. So know yourself. Is it a day you are on edge and feeling more connected to the clock than the people in front of you? Unless you pick a different approach, connection can and will get missed. Pick one thing to get done in a day instead of 50. And if it is one thing like going to a hardware or grocery store, try to make it fun for your kids, too.

Conclusion: This Family Mantra Can Be the Segway to Healthy Boundary Work

Boundary work comes full circle. Getting to the root of the issue and creating a framework of social justice where everyone is accountable for their feelings can go a long way. This mantra stood out to me at Polly’s Parent School, which is now all online, including virtual sessions and Q&A that you can participate in. Check out my other post about what to do when your kids try to flip the hierarchy in your house for more tools that can help.