Everyone gets angry, and parenting is full of situations that can trigger our anger. There are a few things we can do, as parents, though to manage our anger so we don’t further inflame things and can work toward the best outcomes for both our child and ourselves.
Anger is a natural response
Anger is usually a cover emotion for other feelings. We show anger when we feel fear, embarrassment, jealousy, sadness, helpless, confused…the list goes on. When something happens to spark our temper, it has triggered our emergency response system – our mind and body go into a protective mode known as the “fight or flight response”. In our parenting role, we might “fight” by yelling at our kids, or wanting to hit them. We might “flight” by locking ourselves in our room, bursting into tears, or telling our kids “I can’t deal with this!”. These are natural responses to life-threatening situations, but most parenting issues are not actually emergencies. Therefore using an “emergency response”, in non-emergency and relatively minor events can not only be very tiring and make you feel worse, but it tends to elicit a similar ‘emergency’ response in your children – so instead of resolving problems or behaviours, they can often become worse.
Engaging the rational part of your brain
When our temper is triggered, we feel like we need to do something to teach our kids that their behaviour was not ok. That’s ok. You can do something. Rather than getting hijacked by your emotions and reacting in emergency auto-pilot though, we will have a look at how you can re-connect with the rational part of your brain and respond to the situation more effectively. As it’s only when the rational part of your brain, and your child’s, are engaged that either of you can learn and work towards common goals.
1. Notice your temper rising. When we notice and acknowledge our emotions, we can start to manage them. Everyone has different clues within their body and mind that can help us to pick up on what we are feeling about an event. You may have thoughts like “This is so typical!”, “He’s doing this on purpose”, “I’m a bad parent”. You may have physical responses such as clenching your fists, tightness across your shoulder, nausea or headaches. You may notice your own behaviours such as raising your voice, slamming doors, or sighing. These are all clues that something is not going right for you. Each time you notice these sensations and their associated emotions, you are rewiring your brain to slow down the fight/flight response and consider more rational options.
2. Breathe. Sounds easy huh? You might think “I am breathing when I’m angry” and you’d be correct, but holding our breath, sobbing, huffing and puffing, or letting out a frustrated primal scream are not going to help us calm our minds and bodies. Taking in several deep, slow and steady breaths then letting the air out with steady, long exhalations short-circuits our “fight/flight” response by slowing down the stress hormones flooding our mind and body. Pause if you can and focus on your breathing. If immediate action is needed, consciously slow your breathing while you act. This helps us to avoid saying or doing things we’d regret later. And although this is a simple process, it’s definitely not easy in practice, and requires a lot of practice until it becomes your standard ‘auto-pilot response’. For some people it might take 50 to100 practices until it becomes your go-to, auto-pilot response. So be patient and realistic that it won’t be possible on some attempts. However, the more you practice your breathing, the more empowered and in-control you’ll feel over time.
3. Try not to take it personally. Yes, kids will test boundaries, make mistakes, and do things that make no sense to adults. This is normal. It is part of growing. It is part of learning. It is not a personal attack on you.
4. Let your temper pass before acting. If you don’t have to react immediately (i.e. not a dangerous situation) give yourself some time to calm down first. Remember your first response is going to be the emergency “fight or flight” and you will feel terrible. Try to take a moment to acknowledge the emotions you are experiencing and do something for yourself to help you calm down. Tell your child/ren what you are feeling and what you are doing to manage it, e.g. “I am really upset about how you are talking to me. I need a moment to myself outside to calm down before we deal with this”. Emotions come and go, and even the most uncomfortable ones pass when given a chance.
5. Put it in perspective. We can all get caught up in the moment and focused on the challenges we face with our kids…our jobs, our adult relationships, our lives… These are all real stressors, but it can help to look at the bigger picture of the world around us to put our kid’s misbehaviour in perspective… Are you dying? Has your house been washed away by a mudslide? Has your child been kidnapped? Are you unable to afford to feed your family their next meal? Yes, you are stressed. Yes, your kids are driving you crazy. Yes, it is infuriating and exhausting to deal with these behaviours day in and day out. Yes, it all feels really hard at the moment. Yes, your emergency “fight/flight” response is full-on….but…. could you be worse off?
How your child views your anger
We’ve looked at some ways to calm down your emergency “fight/flight” response so now let’s check out our child’s view of the situation, and take action in a calmer, more rational frame of mind.
1. Check your child’s perspective. When your temper is raised you are disconnected from your child because you are too busy protecting yourself. Remember though, most parenting situations are not emergencies. If you can get a glimpse at what is going on for your child, you can settle your own response. It can be difficult, but try to reframe your child’s behaviour as a cry for help rather than an attack on you. For example, “my child is having a hard time and needs my help” rather than “He is doing this to push my buttons”.
2. Model good choices. Children learn more from what we do that what we say. We want our kids to show good choices in life, so it makes sense that we show them how with our own choices. Once you have calmed your fight/flight response and are able to use your rational brain again, you can choose a response that helps both you and your child. You might try:
- Listening to how your child is feeling and why.
- Offering compassion to help your child feel safe enough to move out of their own flight/flight response and calm down.
- Setting a limit with empathy, e.g. “You really wanted to stay at the park but it is time to leave now”
- Doing some simple problem solving with your child, e.g. “Let’s figure this out together” so you are working together again instead of against each other.
- Using humour in a respectful way, e.g. “When you refuse to have a shower, I may need to tickle you…”
3. Plan ahead. Many families find it helpful to get together when everyone is calm and has the time and establish some family rules. Once done, everyone knows what is expected within their family, and what happens if the rules are not followed. When the rules are tested, e.g. The kids are refusing to do their homework, then you have a plan already in place, e.g. Miss out on screen time. You can implement this plan calmly and without guilt because you and your child have already agreed in advance that this is the course of action to take. You no longer feel the need to come up with something effective (and rational) in the heat of the moment.
Give yourself a chance to calm down
Parenting can be tough and there will be days when you feel more on top of it than others.
We are all human, and have the range of emotions that go with that, including those we may not like to acknowledge. When you feel your temper rising with your children’s behaviours, you can do a few things to acknowledge it but prevent a situation that escalates out of control. Give yourself and your child opportunities to calm down before trying to manage a situation and you’ll find things work out much better for everyone involved.
Steve Rushton and Bianca Eastman are Psychologists with Changes Psychology Brisbane’s only home visit child psychology practice. If you are concerned about you or your child’s temper management, or would like further assistance with parenting skills or children’s behaviours, give them a call and chat with one of their psychologists.
Markham, L. (2016). 5 Things To Do When You Feel Your Temper Rising. Retrieved from http://www.ahaparenting.com/blog/Just_Choose_Love 31st October 2016.
Norman, R. (2015). How to be a calm Mom when you feel anything but. Retrieved from http://amotherfarfromhome.com/how-to-be-a-calm-mom-when-you-feel-anything-but/ 31st October 2016.