Every parent gets angry at his or her children sometimes.
It doesn’t help that there are always the endless pressures of life: appointments we’re late to, things we’ve forgotten until the last moment, health and financial worries — the list is endless. In the middle of that stress, enter our child, who has lost her sneaker, suddenly remembered she needs a new notebook for school today, is teasing her little brother, or is downright belligerent. And we snap.
In our more peaceful moments, if we’re honest, we know that we could handle any parenting challenge much better from a state of calm. But in the storm of our anger, we feel righteously entitled to our fury. How can this kid be so irresponsible, inconsiderate, ungrateful or even mean?
But no matter how aggravating we find our child’s behavior, that behavior doesn’t cause our angry response. We see our child’s behavior (“He hit her again!”), and we draw a conclusion (“He’s going to be a psychopath!”) which triggers other conclusions (“I’ve failed as a mother!”). This cascade of thoughts creates a run-away train of emotions — in this case fear, dismay, guilt. We can’t bear those feelings. The best defense is a good offense, so we lash out at our child in anger. The whole process takes all of two seconds.
Your child may be pushing your buttons, but he isn’t causing your response. Any issue that makes you feel like lashing out has roots in your own early years. We know this because we lose our ability to think clearly at those moments, and we start acting like children ourselves, throwing our own tantrums.
Don’t worry. That’s normal. We all enter the parenting relationship wounded in some way from our childhoods, and our kids surface all those wounds. We can expect our kids to act out in ways that send us over the cliff at times. That’s why it’s our responsibility as the grownup to stay away from the cliff.
WHY We Get So Angry At Our Kids
Parents and kids have the ability to trigger each other as no one else can. Even as adults we are often irrational in relation to our own parents. (Who has greater power to annoy you and make you act childish than your own mother or father?)
Similarly, our kids push our buttons precisely because they are our children. Psychologists call this phenomenon “ghosts in the nursery,” by which they mean that our children stimulate the intense feelings of our own childhoods, and we often respond by unconsciously re-enacting the past that’s etched like forgotten hieroglyphics deep in our psyches. The fears and rage of childhood are powerful and can overwhelm us even as adults. It can be enormously challenging to lay these ghosts to rest.
It helps to know all this, if we’re struggling to cope with anger. Just as important, because it gives us incentive to control ourselves, we need to know that parental anger can be harmful to young children.
What Happens to Your Child When You Scream or Hit
Imagine your husband or wife losing their temper and screaming at you. Now imagine them three times as big as you, towering over you. Imagine that you depend on that person completely for your food, shelter, safety, protection. Imagine they are your primary source of love and self-confidence and information about the world, that you have nowhere else to turn. Now take whatever feelings you have summoned up and magnify them by a factor of 1000. That is something like what happens inside your child when you get angry at him.
Of course, all of us get angry at our children, even, sometimes, enraged. The challenge is to call on our maturity so that we control the expression of that anger, and therefore minimize its negative impact.
Anger is scary enough. Name calling or other verbal abuse, in which the parent speaks disrespectfully to the child, takes a higher personal toll, since the child is dependent on the parent for his very sense of self. And children who suffer physical violence, including spanking, have been proven to exhibit lasting negative effects that reach into every corner of their adult lives, from lowered IQ to stormier relationships to a higher likelihood of substance abuse.
If your young child does not seem afraid of your anger, it’s an indication that he or she has seen too much of it and has developed defenses against it — and against you. The unfortunate result is a child who is less likely to want to behave to please you, and is more open to the influences of the peer group That means you have some repair work to do. Whether or not they show it — and the more often we get angry, the more defended they will be, and therefore less likely to show it — our anger is nothing short of terrifying to our children.
How can you handle your own anger?
Since you’re human, you’ll sometimes find yourself in “fight or flight” mode, and your child will start to look like the enemy. When we’re swept with anger, we’re physically ready to fight. Hormones and neurotransmitters are flooding our bodies. They cause your muscles to tense, your pulse to race, your breathing to quicken. It’s impossible to stay calm at those points, but we all know that clobbering our kids — while it might bring instant relief — isn’t really what we want to do.
The most important thing to remember about anger is NOT to act while you’re angry. You’ll feel an urgent need to act, to teach your child a lesson. But that’s your anger talking. It thinks this is an emergency. It almost never is, though. You can teach your child later, and it will be the lesson you actually want to teach. Your child isn’t going anywhere. You know where she lives.
So commit now to No hitting, No swearing, No calling your child names, No meting out any punishment while angry. What about screaming? Never at your children, that’s a tantrum. If you really need to scream, go into your car with the windows rolled up and scream where no one can hear, and don’t use words, because those make you angrier. Just scream.
Your children get angry too, so it’s a double gift to them to find constructive ways to deal with your anger: you not only don’t hurt them, you offer them a role model. Your child will certainly see you angry from time to time, and how you handle those situations teaches children a lot.
Will you teach your child that might makes right? That parents have tantrums too? That screaming is how adults handle conflict? If so, they’ll adopt these behaviors as a badge of how grown-up they are.
Or will you model for your child that anger is part of being human, and that learning to manage anger responsibly is part of becoming mature? Here’s how.
1. Set limits BEFORE you get angry.
Often when we get angry at our children, it’s because we haven’t set a limit, and something is grating on us. The minute you start getting angry, it’s a signal to do something. No, not yell. Intervene in a positive way to prevent more of whatever behavior is irritating you.
If your irritation is coming from you — let’s say you’ve just had a hard day, and their natural exuberance is wearing on you — it can help to explain this to your children and ask them to be considerate and keep the behavior that’s irritating you in check, at least for now.
If the children are doing something that is increasingly annoying — playing a game in which someone is likely to get hurt, stalling when you’ve asked them to do something, squabbling while you’re on the phone — you may need to interrupt what you’re doing, restate your expectation, and redirect them, to keep the situation, and your anger, from escalating.
2. Calm yourself down BEFORE you take action.
When you feel this angry, you need a way to calm down. Awareness will always help you harness your self-control and shift your physiology: Stop, Drop (your agenda, just for a minute), and Breathe. That deep breath is your pause button. It gives you a choice. Do you really want to get hijacked by those emotions?
Now, remind yourself that it isn’t an emergency. Shake the tension out of your hands. Take ten more deep breaths.
You might try to find a way to laugh, which discharges the tension and shifts the mood. Even forcing yourself to smile sends a message to your nervous system that there’s no emergency, and begins calming you down. If you need to make a noise, hum. It can help to physically discharge your rage, so you might try putting on some music and dancing.
If you can find 15 minutes a day for a mindfulness practice while kids are in school or napping, you can actually build the neural capacity so that it’s easier to calm yourself in these moments of upset. But even daily life with children should give you plenty of opportunities to practice, and every time you do resist acting while you’re angry, you rewire your brain so that you have more self control.
Some people still follow the timeworn advice to clobber a pillow, but it’s best if you can do that kind of discharging in private, because watching you clobber that pillow can be pretty scary for your child. He knows perfectly well that the pillow is a stand-in for his head and the image of crazy hitting mommy will be seared into his memory. This is probably a questionable strategy anyway, because research suggests that hitting something — anything — confirms to your body that indeed this is an emergency and you should stay in “fight or flight.” So it may “discharge” energy and wear you out, but it doesn’t get to the feelings driving the anger and may actually make you more angry.
If you can instead breathe deeply and tolerate the angry feelings, you will probably notice that right under the anger is fear, sadness, disappointment. Let yourself feel those feelings by noticing the sensations they cause in your body. Don’t reinforce them by “thinking” about why you’re upset; just breathe into that tension in your body and watch it change and fade. The anger will melt away.
3. Take Five.
Recognize that an angry state is a terrible starting place to intervene in any situation. Instead, give yourself a timeout and come back when you’re able to be calm. Move away from your child physically so you won’t be tempted to reach out and touch him violently. Just say, as calmly as you can,
“I am too mad right now to talk about this. I am going to take a timeout and calm down.”
Exiting does not let your child win. It impresses upon them just how serious the infraction is, and it models self-control. Use this time to calm yourself, not to work yourself into a further frenzy about how right you are.
If your child is old enough to be left for a moment, you can go into the bathroom, splash water on your face, and do some breathing. But if your child is young enough to feel abandoned when you leave, they will follow you screaming. (Even many adult partners will do this. Just saying.)
If you can’t leave your child without escalating their upset, walk to the kitchen sink and run your hands under the water. Then, sit on the couch near your child for a few minutes, breathing deeply and saying a little mantra that restores your calm, like one of these:
- “This is not an emergency.”
- “Kids need love most when they deserve it least.”
- “He’s acting out because he needs my help with his big feelings.”
- “Only love today.”
It’s fine to say your mantra aloud. It’s good role modeling for your kids to see you handle your big emotions responsibly. Don’t be surprised if your child picks up your mantra and starts to use it when he’s angry.
4. Listen to your anger, rather than acting on it.
Anger, like other feelings, is as much a given as our arms and legs. What we’re responsible for is what we choose to do with it. Anger often has a valuable lesson for us, but acting while we’re angry, except in rare situations requiring self-defense, is rarely constructive, because we make choices that we would never make from a rational state. The constructive way to handle anger is to limit our expression of it, and when we calm down, to use it diagnostically: what is so wrong in our life that we feel furious, and what do we need to do to change the situation?
Sometimes the answer is clearly related to our parenting: we need to enforce rules before things get out of hand, or start putting the children to bed half an hour earlier, or do some repair work on our relationship with our child so that she stops treating us rudely. Sometimes we’re surprised to find that our anger is actually at our partner who is not acting as a full partner in parenting, or even at our boss. And sometimes the answer is that we’re carrying around anger we don’t understand that spills out onto our kids, and we need to seek help though counseling or a parents’ support group.