A flash of lightning startles you.
There is no doubt now. It is coming.
Your heartbeat increases. Tension grips your upper body as the windows begin to rattle.
Then . . . it hits!!
Toddler: “Mommy, yuck; my shoes are all muddy” (as he walks across the living room carpet).
Mom: “Take those shoes off right away!!”
Toddler: “Mommy, you’re mean. Don’t be a meanie.”
The phone rings as the timer dings for the chicken in the oven. Your elementary-age daughter comes into the room.
Daughter: “Ugh, we’re havin’ chicken again? I hate what you cook.”
Definitely no doubt: the “storm” has arrived.
It can seem as if those “in house” storms ALWAYS hit full force. They often turn up during an inconvenient time – late afternoon or early evening when children as well as parents can feel tired, overwhelmed, or otherwise occupied.
At these difficult times of day, the impact of such a storm can challenge everyone’s ability to stay calm.
It’s Spiraling Out of Control
It is common for parents to respond to their children’s rage by becoming angry themselves. Unfortunately, rather than lessening children’s anger, parental upset creates a spiraling cycle of increasingly intense anger.
One of the surprising things about being a parent is the intensity of feelings that you may have toward your children – the overwhelming love as well as the frustration and anger.
For most, the strong positive emotions fill you with awe and wonder. But the more difficult feelings, like anger, are harder to accept because they do not match the image you had previously formed of yourself as a parent.
How to Calm the Storm
So, what are parents to do when confronted with their own angry feelings and those of their children?
Sometimes you can feel it coming. You can prepare yourself for impending storms by taking a moment to:
Observe or check the “barometer” of the household. Use your senses. Look, listen, and feel!
Know which situations or times during the day set the kids off and which are especially difficult for you.
- Become aware of each child’s unique temperament, which greatly affects his reaction to the world.
Become aware of your own temperament and how it influences your reactions to situations and to your children.
Once you have listened to the “forecast,” you can prepare yourself for the next step in “stilling the storm” – staying calm.
Your job as a parent is to choose your response to the impending storm. You can get caught up in the swirling winds or choose to be like the eye and stay calm in the midst of the hurricane.
Yes, this is easier said than done!! Many adults automatically respond to turbulence the way their own parents or guardians did when conflict arose during their growing-up years. Becoming aware of this pattern allows a parent to decide whether to repeat it or to make changes and select a healthier response.
Calmness is a combination of attitude and skill. You need to decide that getting calm is best for the children, for you, and for the family – and then make a conscious effort to maintain your composure.
The Benefits of Calmness
Calming down allows you to gain control over your responses. This way you are more likely to handle the situation in a mature and loving manner.
- Calmness is contagious! Your calm response invites your children to become more calm. It is said that “calm begets calm.”
- Being calm lets kids know that someone is “in-charge,” even when the children are not in control of themselves. Having you respond with patience and reason leaves children feeling safe and more secure.
- Calmness gives you the ability to think more clearly. Physiologically, your brain can function in a more rational mode when your emotions are in check. When you maintain your self-control, you become more focused on what the situation calls for rather than on an emotional upheaval which often makes the situation worse.
Ways to get Calm
While it is not always possible to respond calmly, there are many ways to help you get there, including the following:
Take deep breaths while counting to ten (or twenty!) in your head.
Give yourself a “time-out.” Leave the area (as long as everyone is safe) and walk somewhere nearby where you can be alone until your emotions become more settled and you can think more clearly.
Tell yourself this is not your doing and that your children are not out to get you. They are just “being kids”; their behavior is part of the growth process. This episode can be a time for your children to learn both how to act appropriately and how to handle anger.
Repeat a soothing mantra to yourself, such as: “I can handle this without getting upset.” “My children are not out to get me.”
Calmness can be faked! You can act calmly on the outside while feeling undone on the inside. Yes, this too takes practice!
How to Respond Calmly
Once you are calm enough to respond, here are some specific tips you can:
Speak slowly, softly, firmly, and briefly. This will help you stay in control. “Get your shoes off the sofa – now.” This quiet approach will definitely grab your children’s attention, especially if in the past you have reacted with a strong emotional response!
Use direct eye contact. Get down on the child’s level. Do not speak in a threatening or intimidating manner; be firm and clear.
Refuse to be rushed. It’s OK to say, “I need a moment to think about what happened. I’ll give you an answer before dinner.”
Do your best to keep an “emotional distance.” Share your own feelings using an “I” message. “I’m sorry you don’t like what I’ve cooked for dinner tonight. I still want you to be here for dinner at 6:00.”
Repeat household rules: “In our family we take care of our things. No muddy shoes on the carpet.”
Reduce Children’s Anger
When children are upset, one of the best ways to diminish the intensity of their feelings is to listen to them fully and attentively.
Actively appreciating their words, acknowledging their feelings, and letting them know they have been heard can take great restraint and conscious effort on your part. It is important, though, to remain calm enough to listen, so as not to get “sucked in” to your children’s angry moods.
Often this kind of listening is enough to deflate your children’s rage or minimize their upset feelings. And in the process you will gain a greater understanding of why your child was upset in the first place.
The Good News About Anger
Of course, there will still be times when anger storms overwhelm you. In fact, it can be helpful for children to learn that anger is not necessarily bad.
The manner in which you express the anger and your ability to remain in control of your choices, decisions, and emotions define whether anger is helpful, ineffective, or even destructive. Anger managed in non-hurtful ways can actually strengthen your connection with your children.
When you and they express true feelings – even the angry ones – in a clear, direct, and respectful manner, you are sharing parts of yourself, and this builds honesty and trust in your relationship.
And when you have “lost it,” you can apologize and reassure your children that your love for them is stronger than the anger you may have felt. This helps to show your children that people do not have to be perfect, that even adults make mistakes, and that children can learn the skills to make things better.
As long as there are families, there will be storms! Some will “hit” harder than others. Some you may feel prepared for, others will catch you by surprise.
Even armed with knowledge and skills, there will be times when you won’t respond calmly.
But when the storm hits and you are able to take a few minutes to get calm, remind yourself that children don’t always think, speak, or act respectfully. You can recognize what your children need, and you can respond slowly and with confidence.
Without a partner to escalate the storm, children often are able to move past the tantrums and anger more quickly and begin to focus on next steps and solutions.
When parents model assertiveness and calmness, children can learn how to manage their own angry feelings in a constructive and effective way.
With an attitude of acceptance toward the inevitability of anger, with some techniques in mind, and with conscious effort on your part to stay cool, you can help your children learn to manage, in a healthy way, the anger that is an expected and normal part of the human experience.
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.