By Jill Oestreicher Gross
No matter who or what is the cause of your anger, constructive responses start with having realistic expectations, knowing your triggers and coming up with some simple strategies for handling feelings of anger when they arise.
We've all been there: Our beloved child is in a monster-like state, aggravating us to no end by throwing tantrums, nagging us while we are on the phone, refusing to clean up, or coming home with falling grades. Our blood is boiling and our nerves are frayed - what's an angry parent to do?
Anger is one of the most common human feelings, and it is natural to become angry at your children - but how you cope with that anger is integral to a good relationship. And it's not just our kids who can raise our ire - spouses, parents, in-laws and siblings can cause anger and elevate our stress level. No matter who the cause or target of your anger is, experts agree that shouting and attacking their character is hurtful and won't fix the problem.
Many triggers can elicit a parent's anger, so it's important to identify the specific behaviors that you find most aggravating. Then you can begin to develop strategies for handling them. Heading the list for many parents is whining, not following directions, resistance to getting ready in the morning, stalling at bedtime, bickering with siblings, and insolence.
Coping with your feelings of anger without assaulting your child's personality is important. Giving yourself a cool-down period, expressing your feelings using "I" and not "you" statements and having compassion for your child can help everyone get through difficult moments, experts advise.
According to the late Haim Ginott, Ed.D., a renowned educator, child-development expert and author of the landmark book Between Parent and Child, parents need to accept the fact that they will get angry with their children, that they are entitled to feel angry without guilt or shame, and that they are allowed to express their feelings.
Bridget Santella, a mother of three in Novato, Calif., describes the "out-of-control" feelings of anger she experienced following a downturn in her 14-year-old son's grades. These feelings and the household discord caused her to look for the underlying problem in the situation, she says.
"I realized what was driving me nuts were my fears," she says of her reaction to Christian's grades. "Fears he would mess up so bad that he would not get in the classes he needs to graduate high school with AP courses under his belt. Is that realistic? No. I saw that I was being driven by my fear and I sat down with him and admitted I was over the top."
As a result of their discussion, she says, Christian is taking his schoolwork more seriously, and her anger and nagging have died down.
Parenting styles are individual and what works for one family might not work for another. Leanne Cavallaro of Newburyport, Mass., was utterly stressed out by the antics of her two boys, Owen, 5, and Evan, 3, who had difficulty taking turns and sharing toys.
"I went to a social worker to get some help because I was screaming at my kids," Cavallaro recalls. "I was angry at them and angry at myself."
Her social worker provided an outlet for her to express her feelings and feel justified that her situation was, in fact, a stressful one. She recommended Cavallaro take breaks from the kids and continue her yoga class.
Certain misbehavior is age appropriate, explains clinical psychologist Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., author of 1-2-3 Magic and Surviving Your Adolescents. For example, he points out, 3-month-olds wake up several times a night and cause parental sleep deprivation; 3-year-olds have temper tantrums and are dawdlers; and 13-year-olds talk endlessly on the phone and have messy rooms. While these behaviors can be annoying, he says, parents should expect a certain level of nonconformity from kids.
For Cavallaro and her husband, Phelan's "1-2-3 Magic" technique was the cure to the constant discord at home. The method advocates behavior modification by warning your child before imposing a time-out.
The counting, Cavallaro says, "stopped the anger and took over the discipline." Counting out loud, with a subsequent consequence if needed, gave her something to do other than just getting frustrated with her children's behavior. "That's when we started to get our lives back," she says.
When It's Not Your Kids
Unfortunately, kids are not the only ones who can trigger a parent's anger. Relatives who judge, criticize and interfere with family rules can create tension.
Sally Wang, an Oakland, Calif., mom who asked that we not use her real name, explains that her anger stems from her relationship with her mother. Wang and her husband have a 2-year-old daughter, and Wang's mother is particularly critical about the toddler's weight and diet.
"She constantly battles with me, wanting to prove that her way is the best way and my way is stupid," Wang says.
Wang often copes with her anger by leaving her mother's house early or hanging yup the phone if her mother persists in arguing. And, she admits, sometimes she cuts back on the time her mother spends with her daughter overall until things have cooled off.
"Criticism is poison between generations," says Nancy Samalin, M.S., author of Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma. She advises parents to set limits in advance for grandparents and other caregivers who become too involved and to help them learn to respect the rules in a non-threatening way.
For example, if a grandparent is giving a child too many cookies, the parent can explain that the pediatrician has advised against excessive sweets. Similarly, if a grandparent or other relative is doing the child's homework for them, explain that the teacher has asked for the child to do the work independently. Citing the preferences of authority figures can help non-parental caregivers feel less defensive, Samalin says.
Your spouse can also trigger anger, particularly if you each have different parenting styles. Parent educator Bonnie Harris, M.S., author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons, suggests creating a "parental partnership" to help ease tension.
This includes an agreement that the parent who initially handled a challenging situation will manage the problem through to the end without being undermined by the other parent. But, if one parent becomes enraged by their child's behavior, the other adult can step in and offer the angry parent some relief.
By acknowledging parental anger and working to manage it, we can help our children understand that strong feelings can be expressed constructively and that their behavior really matters to us, notes psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. Parenting is a bumpy road, but the rewards of a healthy relationship are great for both you and your children.
- 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, by Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., Parentmagic, 2003. Outlines a systematic approach to discipline using counting and time-outs applied in a straightforward and unemotional manner. Also the author's book Surviving Your Adolescents: How to Manage and Let Go of Your 13- to 18-Year-Olds.
- Between Parent and Child, by Haim Ginott, Ed.D., Three Rivers Press, revised and updated 2003. The 1969 best-seller has been updated by the late author's wife, clinical psychologist Alice Ginott, Ph.D., and family relationship specialist H. Wallace Goddard, Ph.D., but is still offers the positive and supportive advice on communication and discipline techniques that made it a classic.
- Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma, by Nancy Samalin, M.S., with Catherine Whitney, Penguin, 1992. Encourages acceptable expressions of anger to achieve guilt-free parenting.
- Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, by John Gottman, Ph.D., with Joan Declaire, Simon & Schuster, 1998. A noted psychology professor offers exercises to assess your parenting style and tips on recognizing and dealing with emotions - yours and your child's.
- When Your Kids Push Your Buttons - And What You Can Do About It, by Bonnie Harris, M.S.; Warner Books, 2003. A parent educator and counselor offers useful tips for handling anger in dealing with toddlers through teens, with emphasis on parent's understanding of his or her own ideas, perceptions and reactions.
Jill Oestreicher Gross is a freelance writer and mother.