Now more than ever, it’s easier to become angry and frustrated. COVID has made the simplest things in life a challenge and, conversely, difficult things seemingly impossible! Parents are faced with sleep deprivation, added stress, exhaustion and hundreds of smaller frustrations throughout the day that all mix together.
I remember at the birth of my first child feeling completely unprepared. There was a good reason for that-I was! There is nothing that causes us to face down our demons like becoming a parent. All that we are as a person, good, bad and otherwise will be reflected in those tiny, bright eyes staring up at you.
That’s why it’s so important to get control of our anger. Study after study shows that yelling at kids can be just as harmful as physical discipline. A harsh battering of verbal discipline increases a child’s risk for depression and aggressive behavior, and the damage isn’t just done to our kids. Losing your “cool” hurts us as well. Losing control can hurt our relationships and our own self-esteem, and because it often leads to actions we regret (yelling, saying hurtful words, or even violence), we end up with guilt and shame. Worse yet, children learn what they live and living with an explosive parent means they learn to also act on their anger. Even those that may not carry the heavy load of an angry parent inwardly may become explosive themselves, and without having learned how to manage their feelings, they can even be a risk to society.
Learning Your Triggers
Along your life journey, you have been armed with emotional triggers. It happens to all of us; these are survival responses (part of our flight, fight or freeze behaviors), that got coded in your brain way back when. Key to controlling your anger is finding what triggers your anger. Think back to a time when you felt a strong negative emotion toward your child or their actions. In this particular moment, notice when your mood shifted. Triggers are something specific, so it may not be so easy to identify at first. For example, children fighting might not be the trigger. That’s a circumstance. The key is what happens inside your mind and body when your children fight and why. Let’s use the scenario of children fighting to discover the real trigger, which, in this case, is disrespect. This will give a glimpse of what the process looks like.
“When my children fought, all I heard was disrespect toward each other, as well as toward me for breaking our family rules or disrupting something I was working on. Disrespect makes me feel uncomfortable, giving me an anxious feeling in my stomach. This nervousness makes me agitated. Why does disrespect cause me to have these physical symptoms? What was I taught about disrespect as a child? What happened to me when my parents perceived I was being disrespectful? When my parent thought I was being disrespectful, I was punished. So, I perceived that my children are being disrespectful when they fought and that disrespect needed to be punished. Now I can see why my alarm is getting tripped. My brain is signaling that I must take action now to make these uncomfortable feelings stop. Once my alarm is tripped, I’m flooded with hormones that increase my agitation and make me feel the need to release this horrible tension in my body, so I yell.”
Notice how the children fighting had little to do with the reaction. The action merely set off a chain reaction. Don’t do this during the heat of the moment. It will only frustrate you more! At that point, your agitated brain isn’t rational enough to think this through clearly. Do this when you are calm and relaxed. Write down the scenarios that occur most often and look for the trigger by noticing the feelings and thoughts that often run through you during those times.
This will help you better understand yourself, which leads to self-growth and allows you to look objectively at what makes you angry. When you are aware of your triggers and your usual response, you can then make a plan of action to change your response. For example, “The next time my children fight, I will separate everyone for a 5 minute cool-down and then we will work toward a solution when we are calm. I will let the children know this new plan now so they are aware beforehand.”
Ronald Potter-Efron, PhD, co-author of Letting Go of Anger, says that studies show that the neurological anger response lasts less than 2 seconds. “Beyond that, it takes a commitment to stay angry.” That means that if you don’t add fuel to the fire, it will burn out really quickly. The problem is that it is easy to add fuel when we feel wronged in some way, and it’s our negative thoughts that fan the flames. If we can train our minds by changing our thoughts, the whole family benefits.
Learning to control that tiny moment between action and reaction is how we channel calm and keep from blowing up. Here are some tips:
Count to 10. This is a popular method because, by the time you get to 10, that initial trigger has passed and you should be able to think more clearly.
Recite the Pledge of Allegiance, a short poem, or a mantra. “Roses are red. Violets are blue. I love you too much to blow up at you.” Okay, maybe not that one, but try “this is not an emergency” or “I am a peaceful person.”
Use your thumb to apply pressure at the crease of your wrist on the little-finger side. This acupressure point relieves tension.
Close your eyes and visualize being grounded to the earth as peace and calm flow into your body. (I always feel grounded-I guess it’s gravity)!
Do something physical, like jumping jacks or push-ups.
Verbalize your feelings. “Wow, I’m starting to feel upset at this. I think I should take a few breaths.”