When my son had just turned 4, we started to have several issues with him. Some background: We had just moved to a new house; I had just gone through a very fatiguing first trimester of pregnancy; and he had an annoying toddler sister always interested in what he was doing. I wrote the issues down on a list: He was throwing things down the stairs, jumping on the couch, and hitting his sister. I got to reading about how to handle it, and one thing I came across in Positive Discipline: Preschoolers was the idea of a family meeting, recommended even for preschoolers.
I decided to have one and I tackled but two issues. One was throwing items down the stairs. I was blown away by this meeting. My son showed he understood our concern about objects getting broken or knocked over. But then he told us, “But when I’m mad it’s OK to throw things.”
Woah. I couldn’t believe in this family meeting how many times my son brought up emotions or even welled with tears as we talked about some of the things that were happening. There were huge emotions that he was dealing with.
So, that launched an entire, impromptu discussion: What to do when we are angry. I found myself completely tongue tied when trying to walk him through this. I know what the books say: Draw a picture about how you are angry, tell a friend, punch a pillow. Frankly, most of these solutions feel pretty weak. I couldn’t get behind any of them wholeheartedly, just yet, because I have yet to see any of them really, truly work in many, let alone most, situations.
Emotions rivet us to DO something. It has been noted that the word emotion has “motion” as its base. Fear makes us run; Sadness makes us seek comfort; Anger makes us want to fight. All of these play a role in survival. Anger still plays a role today. I’ll give my own example: When I had finally grown angry enough at a job where I felt unappreciated, I hit rock bottom, and decided to start to look for a new job. I knew to get one, it would be best to lose weight. I ended up losing 25 pounds.
But, emotions can drive us to do things we regret, too. I’ll speak for myself: When I am intensely angry, *I* want to throw something. I have thrown things. I shared with my son at that meeting how I threw a bottle once, against a wall, after it leaked all over my newborn daughter. However, it made everything worse. Now I had a mess to clean up.
You have a right to judge me about this, if you want. I used to judge people. Before I had children, I thought I was an eternally patient person. And I was, given my experiences thus far. I had never really been pushed past my breaking point. Well … except when mad at people sometimes. Or when in traffic. Or when I had terrible customer service. Ok, maybe I did have an anger problem, to some degree.
I have actually grown in all of those areas, largely from being a parent, knowing how to smile, be patient, ask for things politely, and so on. But most of the situations that I had grown in were ones where I was a fairly rested person with an ability to think before I acted, and I was dealing primarily with adults. I didn’t have a child screaming in my ear; I wasn’t completely exhausted; I hadn’t truly been overwhelmed by emotion. And here I had a son admitting he was overwhelmed with emotions sometimes. What is a good way to handle this situation? When you see red and you just want to yell, hit, or scream?
Most of the formal parenting books don’t give robust advice on this, if at all, and some are rather judgmental and condescending about it. They make it pretty clear that “good” parents are patient and “bad” parents are impatient. The advice they give on how to deal with stress and anger is patronizing. They may say “Budget your time more wisely” so you aren’t so stressed. In other words, they put it back on the parent to simply have more discipline, to do more with the same amount of time, without any more resources or any more knowledge or skill sets. The very book I mentioned earlier, Positive Discipline: Preschoolers is like this.
Dealing with intense anger isn’t something that comes naturally to a person. This is a skill set. I can imagine there are some people who had great role models when they were young and, through mimicking neurons, learned good behavior patterns. But not everyone did. (And, if it isn’t a skill set, then what good does it do to judge people about it?) Even if I was naturally good at it (and I am, to some degree), I would want to know why and thus be able to explain it to my son, and I couldn’t. So I decided to look for a book about it.
I picked up the book Healing the Angry Brain: How Understanding the Way Your Brain Works Can Help You Control Anger and Aggression. I picked it because it promised to use the latest research in neuroscience to explain anger, and how we could rewire our reactions using the property of “blain plasticity.” I am already familiar with this concept, where the brain is more like a muscle, which can be developed and programmed, so I picked this book, out of the many, as the one to read.
I feel the need to get defensive when I say I read this book. This book is designed primarily for violent offenders. The book says people who are chronically angry tend to be people previously addicted to drugs or mired in hatred. I am not these things. But I found the parenting books were extremely weak in dealing with parental frustration and anger. So I picked up a book designed to deal specifically with the issue of anger management.
There are some problems with trying to apply the tactics found in this book specifically to parenting. For instance, one tactic used is to go take a timeout, something even the parenting books say. But the fact is, when you have young children, you might not be able to leave the situation. I find when I do that, sometimes the kids keep harassing each other, and I just keep getting angrier.
The other thing the book says is that anger starts out slow and builds and it is good to find those very first bodily clues that you are angry. Actually, as a parent, I find I can go from completely calm to completely frustrated in a matter of 5 seconds. And these 5 seconds are crucial. I need something that works that quickly, or something that prevents anger altogether.
An expert in anger who could apply their knowledge about anger to common parenting situations, who treated it with the respect and empathy it deserves, understanding what parents go through, would be amazing. I did my best to apply the advice, and I think I did really well.
The most awesome bit of advice I got was about Deep Breathing. The book describes how there are parts of the brain responsible for getting excited and then other parts of the brain for remaining calm, and the two cannot be on at the same time. The author describes breathing as a powerful exercise to turn on the parts of the brain responsible for calming.
I love deep breathing. The author says you need to practice it regularly, to make it a habit. It is a committed, deep breath. You breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 4. He recommends doing this 12 times in a row, once per day. I committed to 2 times per days, at night. I find anger sometimes finds its home in me somewhere between my gut and throat. When I deep breathe, those very areas feel soothed. After two committed breaths, sometimes it feels so nice, I keep going. The deep breathing acts best as a preventative measure. So, if you want to be a more patient person for whatever your day may bring you, you can practice this every single night.
This is what I commonly use now when anger flashes over me, when I have but 5 seconds to react. In any situation I am in, I can always breathe. I can do it right away. It works.
The other thing that the author says that I really like, is that anger is an unconscious process and using purely conscious measures to try to “control” it fail, which is why most anger management programs fail. When emotions overwhelm a person, there is little hope that a person can go “Hmm. I am angry right now. I am going to choose to be a different way. I’ll be calm and proceed forward with thoughtful action.” Ha!
Instead, you have to train yourself to automatically respond in a certain way that you want to respond. This is also why to practice breathing, or other techniques, regularly: so they become automatic. And, yes, the efforts you put in to change these habits are deliberate and conscious.
This is where brain plasticity comes in. Your brain develops neural pathways which automatically execute under certain stimuli. You don’t have to think about how to walk; you just do. It is similar with how you react to anger-provoking or irritating situations. The author describes it is best to focus on the positive of how you want to behave, rather than trying to break a bad habit. It’s a lot easier to start a new habit than to break a bad one.
It is interesting to me to see how people behave when angry across the entire world. I read a story once of a Middle Eastern man who killed a doctor because the doctor saw his wife nude. The thought of doing this would never cross a Western person’s mind. Why not? I propose because they have never seen it done, or even heard of it being done. The person who committed this act of violence almost certainly had to have seen or heard it before, which then etched a neural pathway in his brain to respond like that given the particular trigger.
I then think of forms of violence still considered acceptable in Western culture, such as spanking a child as a form of discipline. I think of articles and studies which point out that, of the parents who do spank, they spank more than they admit, because they are spanking in moments of anger. In that moment of anger, why do they go back to smacking their child on the butt? I propose because they have seen it done, and those neural pathways got etched. I wonder if this method of supposed discipline were unequivocally rejected, and never role modeled for people, if people would more automatically stop doing this in moments of anger.
The book has many more thoughts on calming down anger, with a strong focus on empathy. I encourage you to read the book. It’s an interesting and enjoyable read. I had many epiphanies while reading it. It also talks a lot about how angry people tend to have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which is something many positive parenting books say. If you want to raise calm, moral individuals, you need to help children develop their prefrontal cortex (the part responsible for thought)–not punish them!
From my own experience with parenting anger, I find it is important to notice your triggers. For me, the trigger of all triggers, is when I decide I don’t have to be a parent for a span of time. It happens. It might be a particularly bad day or even just a moment. I might decide I have the “right” to sit down, and, say, make some phone calls. Then my kids acts up. Typical triggers from them that set me off are crying or when one hits the other. But, again, it is usually when I decided I could take my eye off of the for a period of time. So, I know, for me, I need to decide, every day: Am I going to be Present or not? When I have my “Parenting Hat” on, I almost always do well, no matter what.
It is important to talk to other caregivers about your thoughts on this. It is important to recognize that they may hit their breaking point. Plan for it; it will happen. My husband and I talked about having a “safe word.” We have heard other couples do it, and I think it is fantastic. If you need to leave a situation, and your spouse is there to help you, say the safe word, and leave. Just knowing you *can* do this may help.
The entire paradigm of positive parenting helps you to greatly minimize any harm you may do. It unequivocally rejects spanking and all other forms of punitive discipline. I consider some of the words parents say to be forms of violence too, such as insults or shaming, which positive discipline also rejects. There was an article on Psychology Today that says in the moment of spanking, parents feel pleasure. They find it so salacious that they spin out of control and continue to spank harder and more often. That parents thought this is a good thing in the first place causes them to do it, which causes them to like it, which causes it to be a habit, and then there are those neural pathways that cause them to react this way when triggered. Stop it in its tracks by rejecting violence unequivocally.
I think I feel comfortable talking about this topic because it is truly minimal that frustration gets out of control in our house. The positive discipline tactics work. We manage emotions, respect needs, and find solutions. Our house is calm, and please see my many blog posts for how I do this. If you fundamentally reject violence, most of these problems, perhaps 95%, will go away. I am writing primarily about little flare ups that happen and how to handle them. If you haven’t embraced positive discipline yet, I am not sure that these smaller tricks will fully work for you.
My situation is a bit different than others: I am a stay-at-home mom homeschooler with virtually no support. I am annoyed by authors or others who tell me, “Make sure to go on date night!” Or “You HAVE to take time for yourself!” Ok, do you want to come over and help me make that happen? It’s not a reality for us. Some positive discipline books even make it clear that they think women should not be stay-at-home mothers, because it is too stressful. Sure, more breaks and more help would help me. But I’ve still managed to keep things under control with these tools.
I hope to have provided a multi-faceted approach for dealing with anger, more than just “Try harder!”: Prevention, In-the-Moment solutions, cooperation among caregivers, and a paradigm that rejects violence. Still, sometimes a person is wiped out and all measures start to break down. So, here is one more thought, about those overwhelming emotions:
I find it is difficult–but not impossible–in moments of completely overwhelming emotion to endure the emotion without lashing out somehow. It helps, in these moments of complete fatigue and mental breakdown, to learn that in almost no circumstance can a person make a good decision while under the influence of powerful emotions. So, the focus shifts to getting through the emotion while it lasts, without causing any harm.
I’ll give an example. I was at a restaurant once, 7 months pregnant, with my 2 small children. I had two previous nights of insomnia, and I was very irritable. My daughter, only 1 at the time, started becoming very cranky and demanding. I did not have much in me to deal with it, and she only wanted mommy, so my husband could not help. I tried to get her back in her high seat so I could eat. It didn’t work, and I ended up putting her in my lap. For a matter of maybe 2 or 3 minutes though, she was crying, within ear shot of other restaurant goers. A woman shot at me, “Thank you!” after I calmed my daughter down. This isn’t a “Thank You.” It’s “You annoying twit. Why did it take you so long?”
I hit my breaking point. I left the restaurant immediately, with my daughter. While trying to calm myself down, I kept telling myself “Do no harm; do no harm; do no harm.” I didn’t even have it in me to breathe. I eventually came back in the restaurant, calmer but not perfectly calm. We asked for boxes and to leave immediately. I admit I wanted to yell at that lady. But I never did. I managed to be the peaceful person I know I can be. And I think the benefits of this were enormous. People around me were sympathetic. My husband was sympathetic. The waiter, bless his soul, told us, “It seems like you had a situation. You guys have a beautiful family and I hope you have a great day.”
This is soul expanding stuff. In those moments of anger, it would feel so satisfying to lash out. To not do this takes a certain super power.
I have thought a little bit about why men are so physically strong and women are not. Sure, women can do many athletic things, but, on a whole, their strength is much lesser. Why aren’t human women like female lions, who bear the cubs and do all of the hunting? I think it is because not committing violence, not even having the capacity for it (physically, at least a diminished capacity), is a virtue in motherhood. A soldier who defeated an enemy is courageous, and I think it sometimes takes just as much courage and virtue to not strike when the moment does not call for it.
I mentioned earlier that I wanted to help guide my son through anger better. First, by role modeling it myself, I believe I am giving him an enormous gift. I also now practice breathing with him. When I put him to bed, I ask him to do two big deep breaths. I find I do often tell him, “You have a right to be angry. You don’t have a right to hit.” It’s a slow process, and one I am more confident in now.
I think that learning to control your emotions is the most important thing you can do to become the parent you want to be. It can be very exasperating. Most people won’t acknowledge this, except to get mad and accusatory towards irritable parents. I think punitive methods of discipline arose naturally out of this very anger I’ve been talking about. When angry, for centuries, parents just hit their child. Somehow this became to be known as “discipline.” It’s not enlightened; it’s just more animalistic behavior materializing. And people defend it. Children who were spanked sometimes defend it now, “Look at me, I turned out OK!” Those sometimes-be-damned mimicking neurons are powerful.
But the fact is, this is not effective discipline. If you can keep your emotions under “control,” you usually can come up with a far better solution than the “natural,” reactionary one you would have had. Parenting is a skill set, like any other profession, it does not come naturally. You need to read, read, read, and learn, learn, learn how to do it.
Happy Parenting. 😉