By Dr Laura Markham
“What I start to feel is not just anger appropriate to the situation, but old feelings I carry from the past. And those feelings have nothing to do with my child or the situation. They have come up for me to take a look at them. They are part of me. But they don’t belong in my relationship with my child. They have to do with me and the person who raised me.” — Laura Davis & Janis Keyser
Life is full of emotions that we don’t have time to process in the moment. And parenting is the hardest job there is. Kids give us constant reminders of the places in us that need healing. So it’s not surprising that sometimes we just need a good cry. But who has time for that? Usually we push those feelings away and tend to what’s next on the list.
So most of the time when we lose it with our children, it’s because we’re lugging around a full backpack of emotions that we haven’t taken the time to process. Sometimes we’re actually angry at our boss, our partner, or ourselves. Maybe we have old wounds that get triggered by our child’s behavior. Or we’re simply rushing, and our anxiety fuels anger at our child.
Is it ever appropriate to get angry at your child? Well, it’s unavoidable, if you’re human. Like a blinking light on the dashboard, anger is a signal that you need to address something so your engine doesn’t overheat. But that “fight or flight” response makes your child look like the enemy, and your child is never the enemy. Whatever guidance your child needs will be more effective if it’s offered from a place of love. And your child can’t feel your love if you’re angry.
Most things that make you angry with your child wouldn’t trigger you if you weren’t already tired, rushing, afraid your child is becoming an ungrateful brat, or worried about whether you’re a good enough parent.
To avoid sloshing our own anger, anxiety and other emotions onto our child, we need to be responsible about processing our feelings as they come up. How?
- Monitor your mood as you go through your day.
Being mindful of your own well-being heads off most drama. Be vigilant when negative thoughts hijack your mind and send you into a downward spiral. Before you know it, you’ll be gathering kindling — evidence that the other person is wrong (“Who does he think he is?!”). Enough kindling, and you can’t avoid a firestorm. Instead, keep yourself on a positive track: “He’s acting like a child because he IS a child….Don’t fret the small stuff.” Most of the time, there’s no reason you can’t be in a good mood. If you’re not, check in with yourself to figure out what you need to restore your sense of well-being.
- Stop Stressing.
Stress is behind 80% of our outbursts. Even when something else is going on, stress is what causes the explosion. And yet, stress is partly a choice. If you really want to reduce the stress in your life, you can. Don’t over-schedule. Don’t try to do computer work or phone calls with kids present. Leave early for every appointment. Don’t take kids on errands they can’t handle. Is that extra errand really worth a family melt-down?
- Nurture Yourself.
Make a list of ways to nurture yourself even while you’re with your family. Have a cup of tea. Put on music and dance with your kids. Look out the window and really see the tree or the sky. While you’re cooking or washing dishes or wiping a dirty face, take a deep breath and bring yourself fully present in the moment. Most of all, speak to yourself, always, like your dear one who deserves constant encouragement. As Anne Lamott says, “Self-love is 80 percent of the solution… it helps beyond words to take yourself through the day as you would with your most beloved mental-patient relative, with great humor and lots of small treats.” You deserve a parent like that…So be your own!
- If you’re feeling angry, deal with the source.
Can’t fire your boss or leave your four year old at the mall? Ok, you can’t change the other person, but you can often change the conditions. Make a plan to prevent a replay of whatever set you off. Better yet, the more you follow steps 1, 2, and 3 above, the more you’ll approach each interaction with emotional generosity. When you change what you bring to the interaction, the other person always changes too.
- Make healing a priority.
Resist the urge to take action when you’re upset. Instead, love yourself through your upset: “Breathe. It’s just sadness. Go ahead and cry. You’ll feel better soon.” Simply breathing and accepting sadness or hurt is the best way to let those feelings move through you and dissipate. Otherwise, we often fend them off by acting out in anger. So don’t ignore your own upset. Schedule a time later to write in your journal or talk to a trusted friend, someone who won’t feel a need to solve your problem but can simply listen with compassion so you feel heard and can sort things out for yourself. Or make an appointment with a counselor. When we don’t deal with our own pain, we always visit it on others.
When you were a child, you deserved to be loved and accepted, complete with all your inconvenient feelings and desires. You deserved infinite tenderness. You still do. Why not start giving it to yourself right now?
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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends For Life and Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids:Â How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Find her online at AhaParenting.com