Love and Anger

I remember going to a mother’s group back when my firstborn child was around 2 years old and asking “What do I do with my anger?”

Because I got angry sometimes. When I did I yelled, stomped around, said bad words and/or cruel things. Even when my anger was addressed at inanimate objects, this behavior was upsetting to my daughter.

I don’t recall receiving any helpful advice to my question back in that group. Over the years I learned a few things about managing anger—and sometimes was able to put them into practice! I’m still working on it.

Managing anger is hard. Managing anger at young children or even in the presence of young children is even harder.

One thing I tried was ignoring my feelings. I forced myself to stay calm and tried to be accepting and accommodating. Bad idea. I recall an incident with my second daughter who was in the midst of a tantrum. I was trying hard not to scream at her. I said something like “You are upset about having to leave now.” I was trying to be empathetic but she yelled back at me “Why are you so happy?” All my energy had gone into trying to be calm—and that interfered with my being truly empathetic. My calmness made it appear to her that I didn’t understand her feelings at all. And I wasn’t dealing with my own legitimate feelings.

Forced calmness often led to an even stronger outburst later on my part. I call it snapback—I was like a rubber band that got stretched too far and then broke with a snap.

What helped? Awareness about the factors that contributed to my anger. One big one was neglecting my needs in my efforts to be a “good” self-sacrificing mother. Being tired, hungry, stressed, feeling put upon, not having time or opportunities for doing things I enjoyed . . . all those contributed to the likelihood I would get angry and to the force of my anger.

I did get better at taking care of myself. I learned that the self-sacrificing mother ideal is nonsense. Like athletes, mothers need to take excellent care of themselves or they won’t be able to do their jobs—and the same is true for all parents and people in helping professions. Other things can be sacrificed –not you.

An important part of self-care is paying attention to feelings. Feelings can serve as warning lights reminding us that some need we have requires attention. Anger is a secondary emotion—we feel scared or frustrated or hurt and then we get angry. Karen Young from HeySigmund.com writes that anger “exists to block other more difficult emotions from rising to the surface.” Our mind is trying to protect us from those feelings we don’t know how to handle. For many of us recognizing emotions may need to be learned and may require professional help—and that’s okay.

Even with the best self-care parents will get angry. And that anger should be acknowledged –in ways that don’t hurt or scare others. In order to do that successfully we first need to recognize the physical signs that indicate we are getting angry. If we’ve never thought about anger in this way, identifying what led up to an outburst (or to a cold simmer, or a stone-faced withdrawal) may take some reflection. Authors Susan Beekman and Jeanne Holmes [Battles, Hassles, Tantrums & Tears] recommend looking back at a recent incident and remembering where, what, and particularly when you started to lose it.

A lot of times parents tell their children, “use your words,“  but words may not be adequate to manage the physical sensations of anger. (Not to mention that the words that come to mind may be ones you don’t want your children repeating.)

Taking deep breaths, briefly walking away, and counting to ten are some things that can help us calm down enough to use appropriate words. Doing something physical but safe—my son recommends hurling ice-cubes into the shower stall—is another approach.

Then simply saying “I’m angry” is a good place to start. Describing what triggered your anger in non-accusatory language can be helpful as well: “When we are late for an appointment, I get frustrated because I like to be on time.”

Nancy Samalin, author of Love and Anger (yes, I stole that title) also suggests: Avoid physical force and threats; Keep it short and to the point; Put it in writing; Focus on the essentials.

And finally, apologize for any hurtful words or actions. This can be a good time to reflect on what triggered you and make plans for handling future situations.

April 8, 2019 published on ParentingSuccessNetwork 

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