by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac.
Sometimes I get so mad at my kids! Yes, they were misbehaving but I feel bad about getting angry with them.
Children stir up powerful feelings, including anger, and you are not alone in getting mad.
Nonetheless, adult anger is very scary for little children, and it can start a parent down the slippery slope of emotional or even physical abuse. Plus it's a kind of affliction upon the parent herself: it feels terrible and makes us feel guilty.
So here's what you can do:
Accept your feelings -- Anger is normal. Take the middle path between the two pitfalls of suppressing anger or just dumping it on your kids by allowing yourself to feel your anger but also contain it appropriately.
Lower your stress -- Our own stress or depletion can easily spill over onto the kids, so take steps to handle these factors. It's a fact that our book, Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, is the best resource on the market for this, and we highly recommend it!
Understand yourself -- By understanding your anger you can insert self-control into processes that are currently unconscious and automatic. Notice what especially triggers your anger; there's a good chance there is something there rooted in your own childhood, or in your relationship with your partner, or in your feelings about your overall situation.
Relax your body -- It's nearly impossible to be seriously upset when the body is relaxed. Take some big breaths, leave the situation for a moment if you can, splash some soothing warm water on your face, imagine standing in a fresh stream of water that washes the angry feelings away, etc.
Do NOT act inappropriately -- Imagine a video camera is recording your behavior and others will see it. Remember how you felt as a child if your parents yelled at or hit you. Remember the precious being inside your child, so vulnerable and sweet. Remember that young children cannot control themselves very well, that it’s not their fault they're tantrumming or misbehaving, that they are too young to be manipulative. Imagine yourself in an angry situation and visualize handling it calmly and well.
NEVER hit or scream at or insult a child in anger. Criticize the behavior, not the person.
Prevent angry encounters in the first place -- There is a predictable quality to many angry interactions. So explain early on to your kids what is coming and what you want them to do. Be organized yourself. Choose your battles wisely and don't struggle over little things. Pay attention to food and rest (your own as well!). Separate siblings that are guaranteed to squabble. Pouring loving energy into your children (hard when you're already exhausted) can make them less stressful and draining to manage in the future.
Be credible in your parental power. Do not make threats you don't fulfill. For example, if your kids know that you won't tolerate ridiculous squabbling, they will be less likely to do it in the first place.
Intervene early and decisively -- Step in quickly in escalating interactions. Often one sees relatively feeble efforts at parental control building up to an explosive crescendo. If you do not exceed the necessary threshold to get your children to act appropriately, your intervention will make little difference. Study the situation a moment before you react, and then be calm, clear, and sufficiently powerful.
Have reality be the consequence, not you -- Create reasonable, age-appropriate rewards and penalties for child behavior. 90% of the time that will do the trick. If not, consult with your pediatrician, a therapist, or a parent educator. If you feel like you've got a system that will regulate child misbehavior, you won't feel so frustrated and helpless: fertile breeding ground for anger.
Focus on love and kindness -- It sounds like a cliché, but it's actually profound: Love is largely a matter of the will: we can choose to be loving. And that both puts us in a calmer, clearer, less irritable place and tends to elicit more cooperation from our children. Win-win!
Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 13 and 16. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin.
Copyright © Rick Hanson. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.