We may have heard that “Parenting is the hardest job there is.” While there are many reasons for this adage, one factor is the way our children know how to push our buttons. Despite the unimaginable depths of our love for them, or perhaps because of it, we can be unprepared for the intensity of anger we may also experience. Although upsetting and often surprising and overwhelming, it is completely normal to find ourselves at our wit’s end. Frustration can build as we parent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year in and year out. Nobody cares about our children more than we do and that means that the stakes are high, as are our emotions. Everyone has their moments when they just blow up. But by learning more about anger and healthier ways to express it, we can reduce the frequency with which we “lose it.” It may take time, but we can practice ways of expressing our anger that actually preserve and, in some cases, strengthen our relationship with our children.
Anger is a strong emotion that many people try to avoid. In the course of our lives, we may have been given many negative messages about our anger. Perhaps we were told that it was inappropriate to be mad or that we shouldn’t expect better treatment from those around us. Or that anger only serves to damage relationships and leaves us feeling alone or abandoned. Perhaps we have been on the receiving end of someone else’s anger and it has been unpleasant or even frightening. Through experience, we may have seen that our anger only adds fuel to the fire with our children. Our expression of anger may have had destructive results; we may not have experienced positive benefits from our anger.
Understanding anger can be quite useful in developing a more positive view of this emotion, which when expressed properly, can actually improve a situation and a relationship.
A feeling –
Anger is a feeling like joy, boredom, or excitement. It gives us a clue to our emotional state and tells us what we are experiencing.
N ot good or bad–
In and of itself, anger is not good or bad. It just is. What makes the difference is what we do with the feeling and how we handle it.
Often we say, “I am angry.” And we can feel quite justified in our anger. But it is more useful if we scratch beneath the surface. Many times what passes for anger is actually another emotion such as sadness, jealousy, hopelessness, the sense of being ignored, overworked, overlooked, disappointed, or exhausted.
As mentioned earlier, it is how we express our anger that makes it good or bad, constructive or destructive. We need to be sure to communicate our feelings to the correct person in an accurate manner, not discounting our own feelings or blowing up out of control. The next section will discuss healthier ways to express anger.
It is important that we find ways to release our anger or it can build up until we explode, often in unhealthy ways that hurts our relationship with those around us. If not done effectively, people have a tendency to retell the story (venting) and become angry all over again and sometimes with greater intensity. In this case, we are rehearsing our anger and not releasing it. To move on, we need to practice skills that will enable us to discharge our anger in ways that relieve the pressure in us and communicate effectively to the people with whom we are angry.
Anger is self-propagating; like a tree, anger has roots (the underlying causes), a trunk (our expression of anger), and fruit (the results of our anger which has the potential to begin a new anger tree).
The roots are all of the actions that cause us to react negatively. And raising children gives us plenty of cause. Even under the best of circumstances, parenting is hard and difficult work. Some of our children’s behavior that may make us angry may in fact be quite normal parts of child development, but challenging to deal with nevertheless. Examples include:
- A toddler who says “no!” to every question – even “Do you want a treat?”
- A 10-year old who is loud – he talks loudly, sings loudly, and especially complains loudly.
- A once talkative teenager, who now barely answers your questions with a grunt before retreating in his bedroom behind a closed door.
- An 18-month old who clings to you when you have dinner to cook and company coming over in 10 minutes.
- A two-year old throwing a temper tantrum just as you are getting to the front of the checkout line.
- A child who won’t stay in her bed because she is sure that there are “monsters” hiding under it.
- A middle-schooler who remembers to check his email but continually forgets to bring in the mail on his way into the house.
Sometimes we have more patience for our children and other times, when our needs are not being met, we can find ourselves impatient, frustrated, and angry. As parents, we often go on autopilot and do not take the time to stop and check how we are feeling. When our resources are low, our children do not need to do much to trigger us. At these times, or ideally before, we can ask ourselves, “What do I need?” Sometimes we are tired and need sleep. Sometimes we feel isolated and need to connect with a friend. Sometimes we are bored and need time to recharge by doing our favorite activities. Sometimes, we need an hour or two to ourselves. When we are running on empty, when our needs are not being met, or when our children are going through a particularly trying time, the roots may be in place for our anger to grow.
The trunk in this case represents all the ways we can express our anger. The fight or flight response is typically triggered. Flooded with strong emotions, we may yell, scream, slam doors, handle possessions or our children roughly, give sarcastic answers, blame or shame our children and otherwise, harm the relationship. Equally damaging, we can distance ourselves, stop interacting with our children and pull away from the relationship. Although we may need to give ourselves a time-out to cool down, anything beyond a few minutes for a younger child to an hour or so for an older child is not helpful to the situation.
As we express our anger, those around us get the fruit of our discontent. Faced with our anger, our children may shut down, become ornery, yell back, become aggressive toward others such as a younger sibling or a pet, act out at school, or become depressed and withdrawn. These actions may once again trigger our anger, which in turn, continues the cycle of anger. So our anger spawns reactions which create more misbehavior, which results in more anger……..
Often parents report feeling just awful about how they handle their anger. If we explode, we worry about the damage we may do to our children’s self-esteem. At the end of the day, we may lie down in bed feeling guilty and wondering why we had to lose it over something that in retrospect seems so minor. When we don’t speak up, we can also feel badly, questioning if we are acting like a doormat and if we are creating spoiled children who aren’t being taught how to have a give-and-take relationship with others.
In addition, our words and our body language may not match. If, while talking through clenched teeth, we tell our children, “It is fine; I’m not angry,” children won’t know if it is really fine or not. Can they trust our words or their own reaction to us? They will begin to doubt their own instincts and feelings and ability to ‘read’ other peoples’ emotions.
But our anger, when acknowledged and dealt with in constructive ways, can prevent the occurrence of these outcomes or “fruits of our anger” by informing us when something is bothering us. Sharing these insights can actually strengthen our relationship with others as we reveal what is important to us. The trick is to do so without blaming and shaming others.
As mentioned earlier, it is not anger itself that is bad, but our expression of it. You do not have to be caught in the fight or flight response. There are ways to deal constructively with your anger that leaves everyone’s self-respect intact.
Notice when you are getting angry– The first thing is to become aware of how your body reacts when you are getting angry. Often thoughts register in your body before you are even aware of your corresponding feelings. Do you:
- clench your teeth?
- talk quickly?
- feel your heart beat faster?
- get flushed?
- feel hot or cold?
Take note where in your body you show your anger. With practice, you will be able to notice as your irritation is rising, before you burst. If you catch your anger while it is still small and easier to manage, you will have greater success in following the rest of the recommendations without exploding.
Calm down– This concept, similar to counting to 10, will give you time to bring oxygen back into your brain and to reactivate the thinking part of your brain so you can do more than “see red.” By regaining your composure, you can select how you want to act, rather than automatically reacting in familiar, but possibly not so helpful, ways to the situation. Although easier said than done, with time you can learn to slow down your breathing, unclench your jaw, speak more slowly and quietly, or relax your hand. You may need to take 5, engage in physical activity, visualize a calm image such as a cloud or rainbow, or repeat a mantra such as “I can handle this, “or “This too shall pass,” or “ I can be angry and still think.” As a result, you will be calmer and in a better position to respond.
Consider what is making you angry – In the heat of the moment, you may not even be aware of what is annoying you. Getting to those underlying feelings and the reasons behind them can make a huge difference. If you discover that it is one of your unmet needs causing the trouble, you can work to find ways to get what you need, such a break or time with a friend.
If it is your children’s behavior that is the issue, you can learn about typical child development so you will know if your expectations of them are realistic. Much of parents’ anger comes from thinking that their children are deliberately trying to “drive them crazy.” If the behavior is part of normal development, even if quite challenging, at least you can take heart in the fact that your children are not purposefully misbehaving and out to get you. Sometimes, that knowledge alone can reduce your frustration levels. When you learn to take the behavior less personally, you may be able to let go of some of the anger and react with less irritation and with more compassion.
Furthermore, you are more likely to determine alternative behaviors that you want to occur if you have accurately defined the cause of your angst. For example, knowing that a typical 9- year old is restless, you may realize that having this child sit through a long family dinner is difficult for him and that after 30 minutes he tends to pick a fight with his younger brother. Rather than criticizing him and starting a fight at the table, you can realize that this is part of being 9 and plan to have him get up and refill water glasses or clear the table.
As you are thinking about your experience, you can check if ‘angry’ is truly the best word to describe your emotion. Is there an underlying feeling that needs to be addressed that more accurately defines your reaction? The clearer you are about your emotions, the better you will be able to share your feelings and find solutions to the problems. It is also helpful to place your emotions on a continuum. Are you miffed? annoyed? frustrated? irritated? exasperated? furious? enraged? Again, the better you can describe your experience, the easier it is to manage your reactions.
Use an “I” Message to share your feelings – Once you are clear about what bothers you, you can use an “I” message to communicate your displeasure. The goal of an “I” Message is to reveal your experience without blaming or shaming others. You take responsibility for your reaction, which avoids those end -of-day regrets.
An “I” Message has three parts:
- When I see/hear… (be descriptive) you call your sister mean names,
- I feel… (you will have determined this in the previous step) sad
- Because… it is important to me that you two are kind to one another.
Ideally, after using an “I” Message, you can let your children know what they need to do to remedy the situation. Many children are uncomfortable when confronted with their parents’ displeasure. By showing them how to correct the situation, you are leaving their self-esteem intact.
An effective “I” Message would be: “When I hear you call your sister mean names, I feel sad because it is important to me that you two are kind to one another. You can apologize to her and we can talk about what else you can say to her when you don’t like what she does.”
Another example: “When I see your new bicycle left out in the rain, I am furious, because we just bought it and I don’t want it to rust. Now go put your bicycle in the shed.”
Remember: You want to stick to the current issue and not bring up past misdeeds.
Ideas to Think About:
- Accept anger as a normal, human, inevitable feeling. Parents are going to get exasperated with their children; don’t judge yourself harshly because you are angry.
- Look for underlying issues that may be causing the anger. Deal with it before it gets out of control.
- Direct the anger at the appropriate source.
- Examine your expectations of your child.
- Focus on the essential; decide which rules are really important; let some things go.
- Exit or wait – do not overwhelm a child with too much intensity. Walk away or count to ten.
- Don’t pretend you are not angry when you are.
- Consciously plan how to express your feelings – remember you can think and feel at the same time.
- Use calming techniques.
- Use ‘I’ Messages – the goal is ‘anger without insult.’
- Stay short, to the point, and in the present.
- Avoid physical force, threats and statements that attack or blame.
- Use humor and restore good feelings.
- Create a signal system for your children – so they know that you are getting increasingly angry. At a certain point, they can know they need to give you ‘space.’
- If you find that you react in a way that is too harsh, you can apologize to your child and tell him what you wish you had said or how you wish you had reacted.
- Take time for yourself.
Just because you get angry does not mean you do not love your children. The fact that you are reading this article means that you care and want to make changes for the better. You can model for your children how to express anger in a constructive manner and, at the same time, how to make a commitment to grow and improve yourself. It is not an easy task. As parenting experts Faber and Mazlish note, “Finding a way to handle anger is the work of a lifetime.” We wish you much patience along your journey.
For more information about managing anger, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
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