Anger often comes up in my work with parents. Said with downcast eyes, loving mothers confess to this emotion as though it is a sin that will forever brand them as inadequate. Frustration, irritation and rage are other ways to label what can feel like a frightening, out of control experience. This strong emotion floods our primitive limbic brains and we cannot think clearly or see what options we have in that moment. We are effectively hijacked by our lower brain and tend to react without thinking and go on auto-pilot (aka: shouting, threatening, bribing, giving up, coercing, catastrophising…).
When we talk about loving parents who are dedicated to their child's feeling of safety and happiness and who everyday try to be their best for their children, it can be hard to make sense of anger.
Is it because we have inherited our parents’ quick temper? Is it the fact that motherhood is one of the most physically and emotionally demanding jobs in the world? Is it the fact that many of us live in a nuclear family with little access to receive support by family and friends? Is it because mothers sometimes leave successful careers and trade it for 24 / 7 parenting with little recognition and no control over baby? Or is it because parents try so hard to be present for their children they stop looking after themselves and sacrifice their own needs to spend more time with the children?
My professional and personal experience tells me all these and other related factors could be playing a part. I am no exception here and have had my fair share of feeling caught up in angry feelings and thoughts. My daughter’s dramatic tantrums and the way she would look me in the eye and do exactly the opposite of what I had just asked her to do were no picnic. Being woken several times at night (for no apparent reason) when I knew I had a full schedule the next day also brought up plenty of frustration.
So what are we to do about it? While it can be hard to prescribe a blanket approach to all angry reactions here are some tips that can be helpful for most parents:
- Look after yourself. Yes, you! When you take good care of your own needs you have more resources to be present and patient with your kids (and husband too). So eat well, take little breaks, go to yoga and plan for some time away from your child even if it is just 20 minutes a day so you can do something enjoyable or relaxing for yourself.
- Breathe…when our fight or flight response kicks in, slowing down your breath can be a good way to activate the soothing parasympathetic system so you can access your higher brain functions and make wiser decisions during tricky situations. Try this: breathe in to the count of 4, hold the breath to the count of 6 and breathe out to the count of 8 – if your mind is very busy you can visualize the numbers in your mind as you count.
- Let go of perfectionism: aim for good enough. That is what research shows is the best kind of mother anyway.
- Accept what you can’t control: your child and your internal experience. Our children have their own wills and personalities so work with what you are given and let go of thoughts such as “this shouldn’t be happening” or “why am I feeling this way? I must be a bad mum”. From a place of calm acceptance, you will be better able to respond calmly and think on your feet during tantrums. Ride the emotion of anger like surfing a wave that will pass – emotions rise and hit a peak and then subside to give way to another emotion.
- Keep a journal: notice specific triggers, times of day, what is happening in and around you. Awareness can help you plan more effective routines for the whole family.
- Humour: a simple and effective strategy for breaking through the spiraling of anger. Works for big people and little ones alike - try a pretend trip-up at your child’s next epic scene at the supermarket.
- Step away: if you are sitting on dynamite then nothing helpful will come out of your words or actions. Put your child in a safe place and walk to a quiet place until you can feel rationality coming back online.
There is much more to be said about handling anger so this is a thread I will pick up again at a later date. In the meantime, just breathe...
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