However, as many of you might already have experienced, when we respond with anger this often only escalates the situation with our child, and they too may then respond in a similar manner. While many of us have regrettably resorted to shouting, questioning or punishments out of anger, what is important to remember, first of all, is that you are human.
Anger is a normal part of the spectrum of human emotions. Anger isn’t bad, it reminds us that we are passionate about something like perhaps wishing to raise respectful, emotionally regulated and empathic little humans. So when less than desirable behaviours are observed in our children, we want to help them develop ways to self-manage, through teaching and implementing boundaries.
Sometimes though, when we have been teaching and redirecting our children all day, our waning tolerance for their tantrums or perceived “defiance” can move us to anger. This article aims to outline some tips about how to tame our own “angries” so that you can engage with your children in a mindful and empathic way.
I've previously shared Dr Dan Siegal's video explanation of what happens in the brain when we get angry and how the thinking part gets shut down. So how do we get our “thinking brain” back online so that we can respond in a more helpful way for our children? The following are several brief tips I often use in parent consultations to support this process:
- When the breath is calm, the mind will follow: When we are in the throes of our own anger, the simplest and quickest way to re-engage the thinking brain is to take slow deep breaths. Once the “alarm system” part of the brain has been switched off through breath, we are better able to engage in rational thought processes, thus increasing our capacity to respond to our children in a more mindful manner.
- Step away and come back to the situation. If anger is coming up for you, and as long as your child is safe, it is best to step away for a moment, regroup with a few deep breaths, and then ponder what you would like to teach in that moment. Getting your thinking brain back online before responding will help you engage more positively, and help you guide and offer redirection. It is important to inform your child about what you are doing. This will also help them understand that this is an adaptive way of managing anger.
- Think about what kind of parent you want to be: Sometimes taking a pause before responding reactively to your child by pondering what kind of parent you want and how you would like your child to remember you, can help to shape your response. For example, if you’re prone to yelling, what will this teach your child about how to manage anger, and will this move you towards or away from the parent you want to be.
- Rupture and repair: Dan Siegal states that ruptures in the relationships with our children are inevitable and can occur when we respond in highly emotional and reactive ways. But all is not lost, and repair can assist in creating a healing reconnection with our child. Repair also provides a space for letting your child know that you are human, we all experience anger and that if we say or do something that hurts another’s feelings, we can work through these experiences and reconnect.
- Insight into your own emotional overreaction
- Taking a moment to analyse what is really going on in the situation
- Tuning in emotionally to what is happening for your child and naming it
- Making efforts to let your child know that it was an overreaction, and providing recognition of our effect on them
- Problem solving with your child about how you might manage this situation in future
- Reframing: It may be the case when we have “flipped our lid” and we are feeling angry with our children that we have thoughts of “he is so defiant”, or “my child is manipulative”. But when we become fused with these ideas, this can often create further frustration. What if we were to instead reframe these thoughts so that we could then reduce our own distress and respond more empathically? For example, instead of thinking “she is deliberately trying to frustrate me”, try to reframe the observed behaviour by asking ourselves “what is my child trying to communicate to me?”
- Focus on the desired behaviour: Instead of paying attention to what the child is doing “wrong”, try changing your language to help the child understand what it is you would like them to do. For example, instead of saying “Don’t spill it”, you could say “carry it with two hands”. This may take some conscious effort to re-word our initial response to our children but may assist in reducing frustration by way of giving our child direct instructions about what behaviour you would like to see.
We can’t always be an emotionally regulated parent, and we shouldn’t expect this of ourselves. Even if we do take our anger out on our children, there are many things we can do to minimise the likelihood of this happening in future. If we can tame our “angries” by recognising our emotional state, taking a pause before responding, and regulating ourselves before attempting to regulate our child, we are modelling adaptive and healthy ways of managing anger.
Megan Mellington is a Hopscotch & Harmony Psychologist who works with parents in the perinatal period, She also supports young children and families with managing various challenges, including help with managing big feelings, such as anger or anxiety, navigating friendships and social challenges, building self-confidence, or adjusting to major life changes such as changes in family relationships.