“I’ve never lost my shit with anyone like I have with my kids,” a friend recently admitted to me.
It’s scary when you find yourself lashing out at the person you love most in the world. And of course, closely following that anger is always deep regret, which can feel even worse. But instead of wallowing in shame, you’re better off tackling the anger beast head-on and learning some new ways of dealing with your parental rage.
When your kid is flying around the house like a three-headed medusa, kicking and biting and screaming — or when they have just done a giant poo on top of a pile of your library books or they're standing in the middle of a busy road and refusing to move — it’s not always possible to be the calm, collected adult you want to be. Add sleep deprivation to the mix, and your rage can become downright dangerous. As a parenting counselor recently said to me, “You might think you’re fine right now, but being fine is a thin line. It can switch dangerously fast when it’s 2 a.m. and your child is refusing to sleep.”
For this reason, my counselor got me to write an “anger plan” and keep it next to my bed. "When things get dark," she told me, "read through your list to keep yourself calm." Here are her (and my) tips for how to do just that: keep calm, even at the peak of child-induced stress.
Whether this is some soothing classical stuff or real romp-stomping angry death metal, music can help to get us back into our bodies and ground us. Dancing wildly, flinging your arms around and jumping to something loud can also be a healthy way to expel your aggression. Bonus: The kids will love it too.
This helps to slow your breathing and relax you. Yes, even if it's death metal.
Sometimes, when I can feel the anger building up, I take a deep breath, and as I’m letting it out, I make a silly sound — like a musical sigh or a croak or a raspberry. It helps to pace my breathing and also to lighten the situation.
... and just hold them in your hand. Something as physical and tangible (and TBH somewhat painful) as this can be a productive way of snapping you out of a panic cycle.
I was completely anti-screen-time until my mom pointed out that 20 minutes of TV was better than me getting angry. Plus, that 20 minutes also allows me the time to chop actual vegetables for our dinners instead of eating sandwiches every night. It was a choice between eating crap or watching it.
To this list, I’ll add a few more that are specifically applicable to nighttime angst. Because let's be real: The anger you feel in the dark in the wee hours of the morning after zero sleep is different from (and potentially far worse than) daylight frustration. In those times, something else takes over.
Your devil-spawn gremlin child may magically transform in the light into a cute little sweetheart again.
As my parenting guru friend Viola always says, "If they’re refusing to sleep, sometimes it’s better to give in and let them play for 10 minutes before trying again."
I cultivate night-owl friends for this reason. Speaking to someone who's physically outside your current situation can help give you perspective and talk you down.
This isn’t always an option, but when it is, take it, even if it means waking that person up. It’s better that your partner or your mom be grumpy than your kid gets shaken.
Put the kid somewhere safe (a cot, a bedroom, a playroom) and back away until your adrenalin has slowed down. Some tips to calm yourself at this point include breathing exercises, humming or mundane meditative things like folding the laundry really slowly.
Another habit I’m trying to get out of is verbalizing everything I’m feeling. As many parents have confided, it’s surprisingly common to find yourself telling your kid things like, “You’ve ruined my life,” “I hate you,” “I wish I’d never had you,” or “Fuck you, you fucking fuck” in the heat of the moment. Young kids and babies might not understand all the words we say, but they can feel the energy behind them, so I’m keeping this voice internal these days.
For a more long-term solution, don’t be afraid to go see a counselor for anger-management support. Parents, particularly those who have histories of childhood abuse themselves, often worry that by showing their anger, they may be perpetuating a cycle of abuse. A counselor will also be able to help you to figure out whether this is a truth or whether you're being hypercritical of yourself (and thereby putting yourself under even more unnecessary pressure). It’s a gray area, but there is definitely a difference between normal human irritation and anger and what is something more.
But the most important thing you can do when you’ve lost your shit at your kid is to acknowledge that your behavior wasn’t OK and to talk about what you’ll try to change next time. This makes it a valuable learning process for both of you. Ask your child how it felt for them, apologize and then, hopefully, have a cuddle. As an art therapist friend of mine says to her clients, "It's not always easy being the adult. Parenting is a big picture; it’s not one event. You might lose your temper once, twice, a dozen times, but the important thing is that the overall picture you’re painting is positive, gentle, loving and considered."
I’m not saying that I’m the perfect parent now — far from it. I still get angry, and I still lose my patience. But I’m gentler on myself these days now that I’ve acknowledged that becoming a better mom is an ongoing journey. Sure, maybe there are parents out there who never get angry, and well done to them. But for the rest of us, please know that even though it might feel like it in the dark depths of a long, sleepless night, you are not alone.
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