When you take on the enormous responsibility of having a child, your buttons are going to be pushed. You are going to get upset with your kids from time-to-time. This is OK, even desirable perhaps. Just because frustration and anger with your kids is unavoidable doesn’t mean it’s healthy to vent on them. Anger is a tricky emotion; and also an informative one. Anger is a very powerful warning sign that something needs to change in your relationship. Before you can expect your child to manage her emotions effectively, you must be sure you can handle your own.
Maintaining Your Emotional Calm
Anger control is not automatic. Understanding the factors that contribute to angry episodes lessens the likelihood outbursts will occur.
Step One: Know Thyself
The first step in gaining control over anger is understanding what makes you more vulnerable to anger. For many of us, hunger and lack of sleep are two variables that lead to irritability. As parents, we are used to reading our child’s behavioral signals that indicate lack of sleep and hunger, but we frequently forget that we parents are human too. We need to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others.
Reminder: Make sure you are well fed and well rested when interacting with your child.
Step Two: Minimize Stress
You have heard the expression “Stress at works leads to kicking the dog at home.” There is truth to this. It is absolutely imperative that you are aware of your own stress level. When you are under stress at work or at home, watch out for the danger signs of overreacting to common frustrations with your child. Like dogs, children can be easy targets during these times.
Reminder: Do what it takes to lower your own stress level!
Step Three: Let Your Child Know When You Are Stressed
Don’t hesitate to let your child know how you are feeling.
TRY SAYING THIS: “Hey, I am in a REALLY bad mood today.” “I need you to know I didn’t sleep well last night. I’ll need you to be quieter today than usual.”
Children intuitively understand when they need to handle you with kid gloves.
Step Four: Predict the Outcome
Before you set a standard of behavior for your child, you must first know whether you are being reasonable in your expectations given his age and nature of the situation. If you believe that you are, then you must make sure that you clearly define the expectations to your child in advance of the situation.
TRY SAYING THIS: “We are going to grandma’s. You know how grandma likes it when you use your indoor voice. Make sure you use it when we are inside her house.”
Anticipating ahead of time with your child allows him to make reasonable decisions regarding his own behavior. It also allows you to define for yourself what the boundaries are.
TRY SAYING THIS: “I will signal you by pulling on my ear if your voice is getting too loud. If I have to signal you more than once, you will need to take some quiet time in the living room.”
Reasonable consequences, clearly stated, lower the stress level for both parent and child.
Step Five: Know Your Trigger Thoughts
Kids don’t “make” you angry. Your thoughts and expectations do! Children are noisy, messy, and generally pretty ego-centric. They aren’t particularly aware of other people’s needs. Seeing your child realistically will go a long way in helping you manage how you respond to her.
Step Six: Maintain Realistic Expectations
When it comes to children, we might want to remove the word “should” from the English language. Expectations, frequently unrealistic ones, accompany the word “should”. “He shouldn’t ask so many questions.” “She should be better behaved.” General awareness and acceptance of the social and emotional development of children at different ages goes a long way in diminishing impractical expectations.
Step Seven: Change Your Thinking
Loss of control almost always is the result of negative, escalating self-talk. “I’m sick of correcting his behavior…He should be able to do what I ask the first time…If he does that one more time, I’m going to be very, very angry”. You might be able to respond more calmly if you pay more attention to the unconstructive nature of the thoughts going through your head during these times. Once you are aware of your own pessimistic self-talk, you can take charge by replacing negative thoughts with more realistic ones.
TRY SAYING THIS TO YOURSELF: “I am feeling particularly sensitive to the noise today because I need to eat something.” “The kids are really excited about being at grandma’s. This is why they are so loud.”
Step Eight: Apologize
If you feel regrets about the way that you expressed anger, apologize to your child. Be as specific as possible in your apology.
TRY SAYING THIS: “Kids. I’m sorry that I overreacted to your noise level today by shouting. I’m not feeling quite myself today. Let’s start over.”
“I expect that you can make more of an effort to be quiet, and I’ll make a better effort of letting you know my expectations of you.”
It’s important to continuously take stock of your emotions and reactions when you are a parent. Self-awareness increases your consciousness. When you are conscious, you are able to communicate more clearly and effectively.
Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP