I can remember the first time I felt really angry at one of my children. Anthony was 18 months old, it was the middle of the night and he wouldn’t stay in his crib. I was pregnant and my husband was out of town. I desperately needed sleep, not middle-of-the-night playtime.
So, I’m embarrassed to admit, I walked into Anthony’s room and yelled and yelled some more. Of course, all that did was make him cry and scream. When we were both screamed out, I put him in bed with me and we fell asleep.
The next morning, I felt horrible. I always thought I’d be a loving, patient mother. How did I turn into that madwoman?
Unfortunately, anger toward our own children isn’t all that unusual. But it is something many parents are uncomfortable talking about because of the guilt we feel afterward.
Anger isn’t all bad, though. Handling anger in a healthy way can defuse situations in your own home, while also teaching children how to handle their own strong emotions in positive ways.
"Anger is an action urge and these feelings are useful. If we did not have feelings, we would not be human beings," says psychologist Margie Salyer, who teaches anger management classes for parents.
But as a culture, we aren’t comfortable with strong emotions and are not taught how to express them in healthy ways.
"There is no official training," Salyer says.
"We use the training from our parents, and so most of us end up yelling and screaming. I took my training from my mom, who ran around with a stick in her hand."
Julie LaMonica of Elmhurst can recall how embarrassed she felt recently as she stood in the parking lot of a Kmart store while her 2-year-old son, Benjamin, screamed hysterically because she had refused to buy him a toy.
"I don’t know what the Kmart cameras caught, but
I couldn’t even bend him to get him in his car seat," LaMonica says. "He was throwing his shoes at the dashboard and screaming. He was inhuman. I finally called my husband at work and said, ‘You’d better come home early. I honestly feel like I could hurt him right now.’ "
The right to be angry
Like many parents of 2-year-olds, LaMonica has learned that toddlers have the power to bring us to our knees with their tantrums and whining. Older children, too, can raise our hackles with their challenges to family rules and expectations.
The first step toward modeling healthy ways to express anger is to acknowledge that there are times when we have a right to be angry, Salyer says. In that vein, my anger was justified because my son continually deprived me of much-needed sleep, although my expression of that anger was not.
Children may fall apart because of their need for food or sleep, but for many parents the worst deprivation is being denied respect.
That’s true for Jennifer Cassell of Chicago, single mom of Alexis, 5, who often compares Mom to Grandma, her primary babysitter. Mom always comes up short.
"The biggest thing is, Grandma does everything right and when I tell her to do something, she says, ‘Grandma doesn’t do it that way,’ " Cassell says. "I understand that bond, but I still think I should get more respect."
She used to yell when Alexis refused to do what Cassell asked. It didn’t work.
Now, when Alexis tells her mom, "Grandma doesn’t do it that way," Cassell calmly responds, "That’s nice. That’s something special you can share with Grandma." Then she reminds Alexis of how things work when she’s with Mom.
Figuring out the triggers
Anne Parry, head of the Office of Violence Prevention for the Chicago Department of Public Health, recommends parents handle anger-provoking moments by recognizing the triggers—that will allow you to prepare before the triggers happen.
It’s also important to figure out what you’re really angry about: Is it what your child did, or are you really angry with your boss and taking it out on your 3-year-old who won’t get ready for bed?
Long workdays are a surefire trigger for single mom Lisa Dressel and her 7-year-old daughter, Sara. The resulting meltdowns often have more to do with things at work than Sara’s behavior.
"My biggest downfall is a lack of consistency after a stressful day of work, where we both walk in and she’ll start whining," says Dressel, who lives in Roselle.
"And it’s hard to be consistent. Some days I can talk it out and other times I’m just like, ‘Why can’t you get this?’ "
It gets worse when Dressel’s requests are repeatedly ignored by her daughter.
"I think a lot of it is, there are times I come home and I want ‘me time’ but I’m a parent.
Once parents have figured out their triggers, Salyer recommends parents and children talk together during calm moments about how to handle anger.
Children need to know anger is OK, but there is a limit on what behavior is acceptable and what is not.
Talk about how to stop yourself from losing control by buying time away from the situation or releasing the anger in a healthy way.
‘Spend’ your angry energy
To head off an impending evening meltdown, Dressel and Sara sit facing each other and hold hands. The pair can say anything to each other as long as there’s no whining, crying or angry words.
"I think it was more for me to keep my cool than anything else," Dressel says. "If I could keep my cool, then I could handle her tantrums."
Another anger management technique Salyer and Parry recommend is "taking 10"—walking away from the situation for a 10-minute break.
Because anger is an emotion that carries energy, the energy has to be dissipated in some way, Salyer says. That means you can’t just shut off anger and say "I won’t be mad."
"Don’t take a pill or a shot of Jack Daniels, spend the energy—take a walk or do the dishes."
Walking away from the situation also lets children think about what happened. "There’s a benefit to buying time, because it lets the person sit in their own boo-boo for a while and it doesn’t let them react to something you did," Salyer says.
When Clarendon Hills mom Kathy Nylander’s kids were teens, there were plenty of angry words, but eventually Nylander started walking away from the arguments.
Instead of telling her children the awful things she was thinking about them in that emotional moment, Nylander would write them down in her journal and then shred it.
"I had to get it out, but then I also had to make sure they didn’t find it because that wasn’t really how I felt, I was just angry," says Nylander, mom of three, ages 18, 19 and 21.
‘Here’s your ticket’
Making your expectations and rules clear and consistent can solve a lot of problems, Salyer says.
"Why do kids push the limits? Because we let them," Salyer says. She recommends that when your kids ask you something, "Use ‘yes,’ ‘no’ and ‘maybe.’ Only ‘maybe’ means you can talk about it."
Salyer tells parents to behave like a traffic cop giving a ticket. He doesn’t talk to you about your behavior or let you discuss the situation. He tells you what you did wrong, gives you the consequence and walks away.
"The cop doesn’t say, ‘You’re bad, you’re awful.’ He doesn’t lecture," Salyer says. "We think our children should be perfect and if we just explain it, they’ll get it, but they won’t. They’re just kids. So be like the cop: ‘You were speeding, here’s your ticket.’ "
Sometimes, though, we are not able to walk away, calm down or get control of our anger. When that happens, it’s what we do next that is most important, says Parry.
"I think a parent feels it when they’ve crossed the line," Parry says. "They do or say things they’re sorry about or that they’re embarrassed about. It’s important what we do afterwards by reaching out for support, saying you’re sorry or offering forgiveness to your child."
Parents who feel they just can’t get their anger under control should seek professional help. But for most parents, anger is just part of the job and the best way to handle it is to acknowledge that it’s real, identify the triggers and how you’ll deal with them and, when all else fails, "take 10."
"To wait before speaking is the most important thing I’ve learned with my kids," Nylander says. "Because otherwise what they hear is just the anger and they won’t receive the message you want them to learn. Any message given in anger isn’t the message you want them to hear."
Liz DeCarlo is a writer who lives in Darien with her husband and three children.