Keeping Cool: Avoiding Anger In Parenting
Anger gets a lot of attention. Everybody, it seems, is angry about something, whether it’s road rage, public policy, or kids’ sports. Anger in itself isn’t a bad thing. As with the other emotions that we feel, it’s neither good nor bad – it’s simply an alert that something is not right in our environment. The problem for us as parents is that it’s an incredibly powerful and overwhelming alert, and it can prompt us to react in ways that we wouldn’t normally react.
Why does this happen? In a nutshell, when we experience anger, our bodies experience a physical reaction that is connected to the “fight or flight” response. Our bodies interpret the situation as a threat, and a number of physical responses may take place, all designed to help us cope with the threat by either running or fighting: changes in heart rate and blood pressure, changes in breathing, changes in bodily functions such as digestion, to name some of them. What also happens is that our brain function changes so that it can devote its resources simply to either fighting or fleeing, which doesn’t leave much room for rational thinking. This is why we’ll sometimes do things when we’re angry that we wouldn’t normally do. This isn’t an excuse for poor behaviour, but an opportunity to better understand the challenge presented by our anger, and to learn effective ways for coping with it.
One of the best ways that parents can avoid an angry reaction is to avoid the trigger situation in the first place. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but with a little forethought and some planning, a number of situations that cause us stress can be averted.
If your children are younger, and temper tantrums and power struggles are your main anger trigger, doing small things such as planning ahead for times when the kids are likely to be hungry or tired and avoiding those situations when possible, or bringing snacks or diversions, might be all that you need to do to keep the situation from escalating into one where you lose your cool. Sometimes that won’t be possible, but when it is, it is much easier to manage anger by not getting angry in the first place, rather than have your patience tested when you have a non-compliant, cranky, tired, hungry child on your hands.
Think ahead to what you will do when you find yourself in a challenging situation. Too often, we consider only what we won’t do (“I won’t yell, I won’t lose my cool, I won’t get involved…”) but in times of stress and anger, our brains can’t pull it together to figure out what a helpful action might be. So we stand there, with all of the things we shouldn’t be doing running through our heads, and are at a complete loss as to what to do next. So we often end up falling back onto the things we promised ourselves we wouldn’t do. Despite our best intentions, we’re right back where we started.
A more effective strategy is to consider right now the last time you really lost your cool with your kids. Do an analysis of what happened – what the warning signs were, what the triggers were for you, what really set you off, what you did well, what you could have done differently. Then create a step-by-step plan in your mind for what you’ll do next time. Will you count to 10? Will not getting involved make the most sense? Is heading this kind of situation off at the pass a possibility? Will you take a time out yourself (“I’m upset right now, so I’m going to my room to take a time out for a few minutes, and when I’m calmer, then we can talk about it.”)?
Taking a time out yourself can be a great strategy. We often think that we need to handle situations right away, but sometimes that isn’t the best answer. If we’re too frustrated or feeling short-tempered, it’s much more likely that we’ll say or do something that undermines our good intentions, because of that “fight or flight” response. It’s much more effective to take a few minutes to cool down, then come back to the situation ready to work it out with your best foot forward, once your body has returned to a more balanced state and your rational thinking is back on track. This sets up the expectation that it’s ok to admit that you’re too heated to handle a situation well and lets kids know that sometimes that happens to all of us. It also gives them a model for how to handle their own anger. Any interaction with your kids can be a learning opportunity, and as learning how to manage their anger is definitely a skill they’ll use again and again in their lives, it’s never too early to demonstrate for them how to be effective at it.