Sometimes parents get angry with kids in ways that they wish they wouldn’t. We hear constantly from loving, committed parents who struggle with resentments, frustrations and disappointments that they did not expect to encounter. It’s an issue that comes up with almost every parent, yet it’s a subject that is rarely addressed in depth. So how should parents handle times when the stresses of parenting overwhelm any sense of calm, or even hope?
One of the most important things for parents to know is that it’s normal to move through a range of emotions that include severe experiences of negative emotions. The feelings and behaviors that surface in most parents’ worst moments are far more common than you think. Very few of us have sufficient models or instruction for healthy and helpful expressions of anger, disappointment or despair. As such, parents can find themselves struggling to invent a roadmap for an unfamiliar terrain, dealing with guilt and grief over things they have said to their children, or to their partner in front of their children. It’s important to remember that in the lowest moments, parents are in the process of becoming the example they never had themselves – how to feel, express and communicate anger and frustration in healthy ways.
Children need to see their parents angry and in despair at times. This is important for two reasons:
1. Young children learn by emulating what they see modeled; during the early years, verbal instruction was a distant second to demonstration in terms of teaching power. The goal is for parents to be able to be transparent in their anger and in the process of struggling to express it appropriately. This same struggle occurs for a toddler multiple times a day and your child needs to understand that anger is normal and okay to express, as long as it is done in an acceptable way. In other words, it’s okay to feel any feeling; there are no bad emotions. It’s how you express what you feel that matters. This message gives kids an achievable goal when it comes to anger.
Toddlers get frustrated or angry at times, even to the point where they will hit, bite, or throw a temper tantrum. Over time, they will learn to express these feelings in appropriate ways – but what’s appropriate will vary from family to family. For example, in some families some yelling is okay, and in other families it’s not. As long as there are clear boundaries around violence and pointed insults, healthy expression of anger can vary from one family to the next. What’s important is that there are consistent messages about where the lines are. If you loose your temper, go and talk with your kids about it afterwards, not just once, but go back to it repeatedly. In this way you let them know that you are not afraid of what happened and that they do not need to be either. You are also modeling what it takes to get out of trouble after you blow it – an essential skill for toddlers and preschoolers. You want to convey the message that safely and connection depend not on never feeling angry, but on expressing it well when you do, even if that sometimes means going back to say you’re sorry for making a mistake.
2. The second reason for maintaining some transparency around your anger is that kids need to feel congruence between what they are sensing about a parent’s emotional state and what is being expressed. Parents who are on the verge of blowing a gasket but practicing their best calm-loving-parent voice will sometimes inspire more provocation than compliance from kids. When kids feel like something is off, they will feel anxious and will often opt for pushing parents to the point of an explosion rather than tolerating the anxiety of wondering what is coming next. This doesn’t mean that your kids will be better off if you lose your temper freely, but rather than masking your feelings try simply explaining, “I am getting really angry because you are not listening to me, so we’re leaving the park before I lose my temper”.
The trick is to express anger before it gets to the boiling point. Doing so requires developing enough comfort with the fact that you can feel angry, even rageful, at your kids, or your spouse, so that you are able to recognize these feelings before they get so big that they take over.
In the end, outside of instances of violence, the damage done by expressions of anger is often rooted in the feelings and beliefs that govern family life outside of angry moments. By creating a family culture in which anger can be accepted and discussed you can become a team engaged in the project of discovering how to channel those intense feelings into healthy expressions. You can all come together to evaluate successes and failures; you can congratulate an impressive display of self control and commiserate over how it feels to be in trouble for breaking the rules about how to get angry. You will not be able to avoid anger or conflict in your home, but you can do a great deal to banish the shame and disconnection that often linger in its wake.