Sometimes I get so angry at my kids that I can't see straight. It could be that they won't come downstairs after I've called them over and over. Or I might start screaming if one of them talks back. I want to be a more patient person but it seems the littlest things set me off and I lose control. I feel awful afterwards but in the heat of the moment, I say hurtful things out of anger and frustration.
Most of us want to be the best version of ourselves that we can be as we raise our children. We want to be kind and patient, fair and understanding -- even if we are upset by something they have done. But sometimes it takes next to nothing for good intentions to fly out the window. We become out of control -- possessed by an alien force! -- as we watch ourselves saying and doing things we promised we wouldn't. Read on for my thoughts about those parenting storms.
Reflect on your own childhood. In their wonderful book, Parenting From the Inside Out, Siegel and Hartzell talk about how the quality of our own childhood attachment can influence the way we engage with our children. We all experienced hurts growing up; none of us had "perfect" childhoods or parents. But if you were securely attached to your primary caregiver -- meaning your needs were usually met with patience and love and your feelings were acknowledged and understood -- studies suggest that it will be easier to flexibly consider options when your child is frustrated, so that you can choose the best approach for that particular child and circumstance.
Without the foundation of secure attachment, some parents may find their child's misbehavior unleashing a veritable flood of hurt and frustrated feelings, prompting them to react impulsively. Rather than responding thoughtfully, they may behave in ways that they know to be unhealthy and counterproductive.
Consider the origins of your negative feelings. Parents who did not grow up in the care of attuned caregivers may have a harder time responding in ways that don't escalate problems. Not having had the experience of a parent who validated your feelings with responses like, "You really wanted to keep playing. It's hard to have to stop for dinner when you're having so much fun" means you are charting new territory as you try to avoid knee jerk, angry reactions when your kids misbehave. In other words, if your parents threatened, punished or yelled at you when you were late to dinner, it may be harder to not become angry and reactive when your child exhibits similar behavior.
Feel what you feel. If you find yourself overpowered by anger or rage, remove yourself from the situation if at all possible. (You can say you need to duck into the bathroom!) Breathe deeply, and allow yourself to feel what you feel without harshly judging yourself or moving into shame. Simply breathe quietly and allow your feelings to wash through you. Doing this will reduce the intensity of the emotions you're experiencing, giving you an important pause before you do or say things you may regret.
Reflect on what got stirred up. Once you have settled down and the situation has passed, reflect on what happened. Don't worry about figuring out why you got so angry, and don't try to blame your upset on your children's misbehavior. Simply pay attention to the hurt beneath the anger. Did you experience a painfully familiar sense of being invisible when they didn't respond to your questions about their homework? Did you feel disrespected and unimportant when your children disregarded your request to come to dinner? Try to tune in to the emotions beneath the anger, giving them room to be felt without judgement.
In my online classes, I teach parents highly effective tools for dealing with the beliefs that contribute to losing their cool. For instance, I would invite you to look at the opposite of the upsetting story, "My kids should come to dinner the first time I call." You could consider reasons that it makes sense that your child shouldn't come to dinner the first time he's called -- perhaps he's waiting until you show up in his room so he can show you what's building. But although a cognitive approach can help reduce the intensity of your reactions, you can also use the challenges that come with raising your children to heal old wounds. If you get out of control when your children misbehave, take a look at what is being brought to the surface from your own childhood. By giving room for those feelings to be felt and move through you, you may find that rage diminishing.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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