As parents, we all get angry at our children from time to time. After a hectic day at work or when we are feeling stressed and exhausted, we can find ourselves getting angry at our children over the most seemingly trivial of things. The pressures of adult life are endless – there are bills to pay and deadlines to meet – and it is in these moments when even the slightest parental challenge can suddenly cause us to ‘snap’.
In our more logical moments, we recognise that we are so much better equipped to deal with such challenges from a state of calm. But anger unfortunately, blinds us to this. Because when our children are ‘pushing our buttons’ in some way, we can feel entirely justified in our anger towards them and it is this sense of entitlement that can cause our anger to escalate even further. ‘How can our children be so ungrateful, inconsiderate and badly behaved?’ we ask ourselves.
However, what we must realise is that despite appearances to the contrary, it is not our child’s behaviour that is causing our angry response. When a child behaves badly in some way, this triggers a cascade of emotional responses and thought processes in their parent’s mind. For example, a child may steal a bag of sweets from the shop and their parent immediately thinks, ‘I’ve raised a criminal! Oh my gosh, I’ve failed him as a mother – I’m such a terrible parent!’ We understandably find these feelings unbearable and so we lash out at our child in anger as a way of displacing these unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions.
Finding the Root Cause of Our Anger
The reality is that while our children may trigger our angry response, the actual cause or source of this anger is invariably rooted in our own childhoods. The experiences we had in our early formative years and the way in which we were parented ourselves, ultimately shapes how we end up parenting our own children. And when our children misbehave, we suddenly find that these emotional ‘wounds’ from our childhoods are brought painfully to the surface.
These feelings of fear and helplessness from our childhoods can often be so intense that they overwhelm us, even as adults. It is a phenomenon psychologists refer to as ‘ghosts in the nursery’. It is useful to understand this phenomenon if we are struggling to cope with our anger because it demonstrates just how damaging parental anger can be, and this gives us the perfect incentive to control ourselves.
Think about the last time you were on the receiving end of someone else’s anger – no doubt it was an unpleasant and hurtful experience? Anger is scary no matter who happens to be doing the yelling. However, when it is our own parent who is shouting at us, the feelings of fear and hurt are magnified by a thousand. Our parent is three times our size and just so happens to be the very person whom we rely on for food, shelter and indeed, for our very sense of self. So when we consider it from our child’s point of view, we can see that being on the receiving end of a parent’s angry outburst is nothing short of terrifying for them.
Accepting that We Are Human
We are only human however, and it is in our very nature to make mistakes and lose our tempers from time to time. But the one thing we do have control over is how we choose to deal with our emotions in these times of anger. We can choose to scream and shout and punch the wall, or we can choose to take a few deep breaths and remove ourselves from the situation entirely until we are able to respond in a calmer and more measured way. The first option teaches our children that hitting and shouting is a healthy and acceptable way to deal with anger, while the latter models to children that anger is a natural part of being human and that learning to manage it constructively is all part of the process of ‘growing up’.
This fascinating article ‘How to Handle Your Anger at Your Child’ from Laura Markham explores this subject in greater detail and examines different techniques of dealing with anger in more constructive ways. We believe it to be essential reading for every parent as anger is an issue that we all find ourselves facing from time to time. However, here is a summary of the some of the key points made in the article and we have also added below the tools from our book Kids Don’t Come With a Manual that we’d use in these circumstances:
Set Limits before you lose your temper
Often, we get angry because our children’s behaviour is triggering us and we haven’t set a clear rule or expectation. It is in these moments that we can choose to intervene positively. This may be by simply explaining to our children that their behaviour is irritating us and calmly asking them to keep this behaviour to a minimum. If the behaviour persists, you may need to stop what you’re doing in order to restate your family rule or expectation as a means of redirecting them and prevent the situation and your anger from escalating.
Make a list of constructive ways to control your anger
Awareness is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal in managing your anger, and listing ways of relieving tension and reducing anger is the perfect way to promote this. This may include making yourself laugh or forcing a smile when you feel angry, repeating a calming mantra or simply taking three deep breaths and counting to ten. You’ll find that once you become more aware of your triggers and the physiological responses that occur when you are feeling angry, the better equipped you’ll to be able to harness your self-control and stop challenging situations from escalating.
Try and find the source of your anger
Sometimes we may think that we are angry at our children’s behaviour when in fact it is our partner or boss that has caused us to feel this way. That is why it is so important that we learn to listen to our anger instead of immediately acting on it. By limiting our expression of anger and calmly asking ourselves, ‘What on Earth is making me feel so angry?’ we soon discover that when we view anger in a diagnostic way it can have invaluable lessons to teach us.
Never resort to spanking
There is a wealth of psychological research that highlights just how damaging an effect spanking can have on a child. In fact, the effect of spanking can be so damaging that it continues to negatively impact child well into their adult lives. So if you feel the urge to lash out at your child, do whatever you need to do to prevent it from happening. Remove yourself from the situation entirely, lock yourself in your car if you have to until the tension passes and you’re able to deal with the situation in a calm and considered way.
Here are a few tools from our book that you can use effectively if your children tend to push your buttons:
Take a step back
When we feel ourselves getting angry, it can be helpful to try to ‘take a step back’ from the situation. This may simply be a case of allowing ourselves to take some time away and taking a few deep breaths to help us regain control of our emotions and prevent the situation from escalating. It’s also useful to name the emotion that we are feeling, whether that emotion happens to be anger or frustration, as putting a name to what we are feeling is one of the most effective ways of defusing it.
Rewind and Replay
There will be occasions when for whatever reason, you’ll find yourself getting angry. When you catch yourself feeling this way, one of the most effective tools you have at your disposal is the ability to ‘Rewind and Replay’. When you feel you are being triggered by your children’s behaviour and you catch yourself doing or saying something that you would rather do differently, stop and say ‘Rewind’ loudly and clearly. Then pause, take a deep breath and take the situation back to the point where you went ‘off course’. Start over again, but this time communicate with your children more respectfully and try to use more humour and empathy.
Lastly, on the occasions when you do lose your temper it’s essential that you take the time to repair the conflict or outburst to help ensure that you maintain a strong connection with your child. Start by sitting down with them and apologise for what has happened. Present them with your version of the facts and use statements that begin with ‘I feel’ wherever possible. Explain to your child that you regret behaving in the the way that you did and then allow them to share their own version of the event. Make sure that you actively listen to what they are saying and make them feel that you have understood their point of view. You can then end with a Problem Solving session to define what you could both do to prevent the conflict from happening again.