Parenting and anger: how to keep your cool when tempers flare
January 28, 2023
Modeling emotional regulation is the best way to help children learn the skill
by Lindsay Flannery
If you’re a parent, you’ve been there: You’ve asked your child five times to get dressed, and you find them in their room playing when it’s time to leave. Anger wells up inside you. You also had to remind them multiple times to do their homework last night, and you’ve already intervened in several sibling fights today.
All those frustrating moments build on each other, now you’re running late, and then: your anger loudly erupts all over your child. “Why do you have to make this so hard? You’re making us late! Can’t you just do what I ask!”
The problem is, as valid as your anger is, dumping it on your child doesn’t help the situation, and it doesn’t help them learn. It just makes them defensive. In fact, according to Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting, “Expressing anger to someone else just reinforces your anger, and that internal feeling that it's an emergency. That heightens your "fight or flight" response -- which makes the other person look like the enemy.”1
Our job as parents is to guide our children to make better choices, and we can’t do that when we make them the enemy and put them on the defensive. So how, then, do we deal with our anger -- and help our children make better choices in the future?
1. Own your feelings.
In the moment, it feels like our children are the reason for our anger. Their misbehavior or noncompliance feels so irritating that we can’t help but respond in kind.
However, the angry feelings are our own. We forget that misbehaving children are not a threat, but simply confused or upset young people with immature brains. And if we’re losing our temper because of that behavior, it’s a sign we’re triggered.
Why are we so easily triggered by our children? Because their misbehavior touches deeper, more vulnerable hurts, like fear and sadness, or trauma we carry from our own childhoods. In the situation above, we might actually be feeling fear that our child is destined to fail if they can’t figure out how to follow through on simple instructions. And we might feel like we’ve failed them, which adds shame and guilt on top of the fear. This all bursts out of us as anger in the moment.
2. Don’t act when angry: Feel it to heal it.
If we can catch ourselves in that moment when we feel hijacked by our emotions, when the situation feels like an emergency, we have the opportunity to choose a different course of action.
This looks like stopping what you’re doing, dropping your agenda with your child, and taking a few moments to breathe. Yes, you may have to tell your child that you need a moment and walk to another room. Be present with the sensation of the emotion in your body, noticing where you feel it. Continue to breathe and give space to this emotion, even if it feels enormously uncomfortable.
When you begin to calm down, ask yourself, “what’s underneath this anger?” Maybe it’s powerlessness, guilt, shame, fear, or worry. Let it move through you. Tears might come when you allow the full experience of your feelings.
At first, this feels enormously difficult. However, as Dr. Markham says, “Every time you can breathe through that unbearable feeling without lashing out, you're emptying your emotional backpack so you won't get triggered as easily in the future.”2 With practice, we can actually create new neural pathways that reinforce this way of coping with anger or any other difficult emotion.
The key is that we process our tough emotions on our own, so we can show up as the parent our child needs: a grown-up who can calmly coach their child so they can grow and learn to process their own emotions.
3. Doesn’t this mean I’m being permissive?
Imagine your child hits their sibling with a pillow for the third time today. If you walk away to breathe instead of yell at them, doesn’t that mean you’re a permissive parent, and simply allowing the behavior to happen? Not at all. As long as you make sure the sibling being hit is safely removed from the situation, exiting the room and saying “I need a minute” simply demonstrates to your child how to practice emotional regulation.
4. Set clear, kind limits for your children.
Once you’ve calmed down enough to show up with empathy for your child, and not see them as the enemy, then you can talk. “You must have been very angry to hit your brother with the pillow. It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s never okay to hit.” Okay the feeling, and set a kind limit around appropriate behavior. All feelings are okay, all behaviors are not. See how this applies to kids and parents?
When we’re triggered, it feels like we have to “set them straight” at the exact moment the misbehavior occurs. However, if we’re in that hijacked, angry place where our child feels like the enemy, we’re more likely to act in a way that’s scary to our child and puts them on the defensive, or makes them feel awful about themselves. It doesn’t actually help change their behavior.
All children, deep down, want to please their parents. If they’re acting out, it’s because they’re hurt or dealing with big feelings of their own. When we can regulate our own emotions, it allows us to show up with empathy and kindness for our child, so we can get to the root of their behaviors and address their fears or concerns.
Sometimes this looks like helping them feel their own big feelings. Maybe they just need to cry, or to tell you about something upsetting that happened at school earlier in the day. Maybe they didn’t get enough sleep, or they’re mad that their brother keeps ruining their artwork. Whatever it is, approaching our children with kindness and empathy makes it much more likely that they’ll open up to us, and be able to dissolve the hurt at the root of their behavior.
5. The importance of connection
Staying calm when our children are acting out also reinforces our connection with them, and connection is the most important parenting tool we have. When our kids feel connected to us, they want to please us, and they feel safe enough to open up. When in doubt, nurture a loving connection with play, laughter and one-on-one attention. Often, you’ll notice a near-immediate improvement in behavior.