© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2001, 2002
Dealing With Your Anger
Dear Dr. Hanson,
Sometimes I get so mad at my kids! I'm under enough pressure as it is. First, they don't do what I say and I get a little mad, then they fuss and I get madder and start yelling, voices get louder and louder, and finally they start screaming -- which sends me over the top. Sometimes I'll just lose it, pick them up and drop them on their bed, slam their bedroom door, and scream at them myself. Yes, they were misbehaving but I feel bad afterwards. And sometimes the first look in their eyes when they see me has fear in it, like they are wary.
Getting really mad at the kids is a universal experience for parents, but not one that many feel comfortable talking about. I appreciated your willingness to break the taboo and be open about the topic. You are not alone. Children stir up powerful feelings, including anger.
Anger is normal
It is OK for children to see their parents get angry, whether at them, each other -- or Uncle Sam! Anger is a normal emotion.
On the one hand, adult anger can be scary and overwhelming for kids. We are so much bigger, we have tremendous power over them, and they desperately need and love us. Imagine that there is a powerful amplifier that connects your voice to your children's ears.
Yet on the other hand, acting like you are not angry when you really are is inauthentic and teaches children to falsify themselves -- not a good lesson. There is a difference, though, between what we feel and what we actually do. Being openly angry yet handling it with restraint, responsibility, and skill is a great model for children.
Prevent angry encounters
There is a predictable, even ritualized quality to many angry interactions. This can help us anticipate and prevent angry encounters. For example, 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.
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
Intervene early and decisively 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. Avoid the crescendo by being effective early on.
Restrain angry expression
As much as you can, have reality be the consequence, not you. If you tell your daughter not to eat the brownie until after dinner, and she nibbles at it anyway, it's better for her to lose the brownie than get yelled at.
Criticize the behavior, not the person.
And don't go into rages. Raging at kids can become a very bad habit. It is very frightening to them, verges on emotional abuse, and undermines a parent's credibility and moral authority. Above all else, do not be violent. The dropping on the bed you describe definitely sounds 'over the top.'
Imagine that you have an internal regulator which slows down your reactions. Imagine yourself in an angry situation and visualize handling it calmly and well.
Deal with your stress
You speak of all the pressure you are under. Don't take it out on the kids. It's not their fault that you are stressed. Do things to lower your stress level overall. Work things out better with your spouse. Talk with friends. Try one of A.P.P.L.E.'s great parenting classes or support groups.
Examine yourself and how you typically deal with anger. By understanding your anger you can insert self-control into processes that are currently unconscious and automatic, and based on old learning that doesn't apply to your current situation.
Notice what especially triggers your anger. Maybe it is the big one picking on the little one, or challenges to your authority, or voices rising, or issues around meals or leaving the house. Study these triggers; there is a good chance that there is something in the anger trigger from your own childhood.
Be aware of your background thoughts. Listen closely and you may be surprised to hear what your mind is quietly murmuring.
Be aware of the dynamics of your anger. Do you swing from over-giving, maybe with a too-tight smile and slightly squeezed voice, to feeling drained and blowing up? Are you controlled -- and then explosive?
Look into your underlying motivations. Sure we want to be less angry, but sometimes an unwanted condition has hidden rewards to it that make it hard to change. What might be the rewards for you in your angry style? Does anger give you a sense of power? Is it a familiar ritual that enables you to blow off tension? Does it give you a feeling of being back in control of situations that you have let get out of hand?
Sometimes we have a backlog of anger from other situations that get transferred to our kids. Kids are lightning rods for anger. Is there any anger at your spouse or work situation floating around? It is worth dealing with that anger very directly, through discussions with the relevant people and/or professional help.
In particular, anger from our own childhood (our anger as well as that of our parents) can be reactivated by our kids. The familiar situation of an angry parent calls up that old anger, except this time we are the parents. It can feel sometimes like we are 'channeling' mom or dad, and doing things to our own kids that cut us to pieces when our parents did them to us. This is a particularly good topic for professional help.
Finally, there are community resources such as hotlines or support groups that can help us bring anger under control. A.P.P.L.E. has fine programs and you can also call the Parental Stress Hotline (415/457-2255, 24 hours) or the Parents Place Warm Line (415/931-WARM).