By Shauna Casey, October 24, 2021 from Hand in Hand Parenting
It was 7am. I could barely keep my eyes open and my son was already surly.
I was trying to make myself some tea and him some breakfast. After a few minor complaints about my not being able to do special time with him, he finally found a paper and crayons to occupy himself. But by the time I'd made his lunch and had breakfast ready, we needed to eat, brush our teeth, brush hair, get shoes on and walk out the door fast. These are all the things my son detests doing, especially in rapid succession. When I asked him to brush his hair (and then brush his teeth and put his shoes on), he got really tense and threw his brush down on the floor and said, “NO! I WON’T DO IT!”
The sound of his wooden brush crashing on the wood floor nearly put me over the edge. The clock was ticking and I was furious. I felt ready to break that brush in two.
“We don’t have time for this!!! Brush your hair and teeth and put your shoes on NOW!” I yelled back.
He burst into tears. As parents we all find ourselves in moments where we feel squeezed too hard. As though we’re parenting while being locked in a boiler room with the heat cranked up. Sometimes, our children don’t need to do anything to bring on feelings of claustrophobia. The daily demands of wash, feed, clean. Eat, clean, dress. Clean, work, work. Work, eat, clean. Bedtime routine, and repeat, are more than enough to turn up the heat on our parent anger dial. Other times, we’re in a great mood but our kiddos aren’t.
Moments when off-track children won’t budge and need extra care, attention and energy. We might feel incredulous about the fact that we’re seemingly doing everything “right,” but our child remains in a difficult place. You may ask yourself, “What else can I give?” You may feel that all you’re doing is still not enough. Boom! Parent anger trigger goes off!
The essential work of parenting is incredibly under-funded and under-supported. Is it any surprise we sometimes find ourselves ready to boil over? You’re not making it up if you sometimes feel it’s all just too much. These feelings are very valid. Parent anger is all too real, and very undiscussed. The difficult reality is that all of these feelings and responses happen, not in a vacuum, but in front of our children.
And they aren’t passive observers. They watch our behavior, and they feel our energy as we go about our days. And, with us as a blueprint, they adopt similar patterns.
If we don’t want to raise yellers, then it follows that we cannot be yellers. How’s that for added pressure?! So what do we do with that responsibility when kindness and grace seem impossible to extend—both to our children and to ourselves? How do we handle parent anger, in the moment and after? This simple strategy helps me handle parent anger in the moment.
Here’s how I grounded myself that morning. Instead of breaking the brush or yelling anything else, I said a mantra in my head, “Down, Mama!” Then I just lay on the floor.
I imagined melting into the ground. I lay there on the ground just “melting” and breathing and looking left to right (something I’ve learned helps me bring my brain back to a thinking state).
It feels important to acknowledge here that I knew I was taking a risk that we would be late for school. I had decided that I would rather this happened than yell or demand or have a huge conflict with my son before he went to school.
It’s been a big transition after a year of home-schooling during COVID to his new school and while it’s going really well, I don’t want to send him off on a bad footing with me if I don’t have to. It’s still hard for him to separate from me when I drop him off.
For a minute, it got quiet. And then I felt my son’s face near mine. He whispered, “What are you doooooooing?” I turned and looked at him. “I broke! I’m trying to put myself back together!” We both cracked up.
After laying there on the floor for a minute we both got up, still laughing, and the mood had drastically changed. We brushed hair and teeth and got shoes on and got out the door while my son told me jokes.
In the car as we drove, I angled my rearview mirror so I could see his face and told him, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. You didn’t do anything wrong. I had some big feelings about being late because I didn’t get us up early enough.” He smiled and said, “I know, Mama! It’s ok.”
We arrived a couple of minutes past the bell, and calmly walked to his classroom and said goodbye with smiles on our faces (and relief in my heart). And this is what I do to turn down the heat and handle parent anger long-term
My work didn’t stop there. Moments where I lose it are fewer and farther between than they used to be. I know now through trial and error that reaching a state of yelling means I am seriously off-track. It means I have accumulated too many frustrations inside of me that have had no place to go. When that happens, it is almost a given that my parent anger will kick in and I'll boil over.
That's when I call a listening partner.
That day, my partner listened as I pushed a wall and said, “Back off!” They listened as I said sternly, “You WILL brush your teeth NOW and that is the end of that!” They listened as I eventually cried in frustration over how exhausted I was. I talked for probably 20 minutes and felt considerably better afterward, because all of my legitimate feelings of frustration and anger had a place to spill over. A safe place, where I was regarded with warmth rather than judgement for my feelings and behaviors and with a knowing that I am a good enough parent.
As I began to wind down, my clearer thinking returned.
“I don’t remember the last time I did something nourishing for myself,” I told my listener. “I am often taking care of others but not taking good care of myself.” I didn’t feel hopeless about that fact. I felt clear. I saw that I needed to carve out some time in my day, to do just that. I scheduled more Listening Partnerships for that week and made a plan to do something that brings me great joy that weekend (and I did it!). How to handle your parent anger—tips and strategies
Here is a list of things you can try when you need to turn down the heat:
Think why. Start equating your desire to do or say bananas things with the idea that it means you can’t think clearly. That’s it. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a bad parent. It means you can’t think. In our family we talk about having a flipped lid—that we can’t think when our lids are flipped.
Avoid harm. Focus more on doing no harm than on getting things “right.” What’s harm? Breaking a brush in two. Yelling. Grabbing harshly. Spanking. Hitting a wall. These big reactions can be scary, for you and your child. Those hurts can last long beyond the moment. Try to decide, in advance, on a phrase or an image that you can pull up in the moment when you are about to go off the rails to bring you back to your intention to do no harm.
Have a plan for these moments. Since it is really hard to think when you can’t think (!!), plan for what you’ll do when you can’t think. Write it down and stick it on the fridge or someplace easily accessible. Then, when you come close to boiling over, do the thing to turn down the heat. The thing might be:
Laying on the floor like I did and saying, “I broke!”
Telling your child as gently and calmly as possible, “I can’t listen right now, sweetie. I need to go to (a room with a view if you can).
Go sit in the room and splash water on your face.
If you can set your child up with a show to watch or something to entertain them for 25 minutes, call a Listening Partner.
If you aren’t able to get a Listening Partner on the phone, you might stand up and push a wall. This can be an empowering stance to take when we feel defeated and it can release tension in our bodies that is making us rigid and inflexible in our thinking.
Lower the bar. Take an honest look at the support you have in place. Are there things you can deprioritize as you prioritize caring for yourself more? For example, I sometimes leave dishes overnight because I want to take a walk or do a Listening Partnership after my son goes to bed and I can’t handle the thought of doing any more dishes at the end of the day.
Drop Perfect. Take an honest look at the expectations you are holding on to of yourself. Is it possible you’re trying to do it all perfectly when in fact, it just needs to be good enough? Spend some time reflecting (through writing in a journal or in a Listening Partnership) on the effort you put into getting things “right” versus the effort you put into listening to yourself and feeling heard. Do you make a lot of time to complete tasks and set limits but very little time listening to yourself? If your effort is lopsided, what are your thoughts and feelings about that? What do you think might need to change in order for you to make more of an effort to be heard?
Expect mistakes and apologize. You will never ever get every moment right so don’t even try. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it to your children and model repair.
Find Some Space. When we have a plan in place to take care of ourselves, it is often easier to take care of the children in our lives. I like to do something I find really fun that makes me laugh. Laughter puts me back in touch with my playful side. I also make space for my feelings in Listening Time. When we can take our feelings to a listener who knows we are good, we give space to the feelings inside of us that keep us from our own good clear thinking.
If you don’t have a Listening Partner, consider getting one. Becoming a member of the Parent Club is one way to find partners from all over the world, or consider beginning with one of my Hand in Hand group listening calls. I offer them free twice a month. Come say hi!Taking the pressure out of the pot
Setting plans in motion for how you’ll notice, respond and get listened to, can really take the pressure out of that boiling pot. It's one less thing to worry about. Knowing you will be listened to goes a long way toward increasing your capacity to listen to your children in your hardest moments. The truth of it is, if we aren’t listening to ourselves, listening to our children is not possible. It’s really as simple as that. It’s not about making the bad feelings go away or ignoring them or re-working them into more positive feelings or thoughts. It’s about giving the feelings space to be expressed with support, and trusting that in doing so we are building our capacity to keep them out of the relationship we have with our children, even when things get hard. With a plan to take care of ourselves in place, it’s often easier to take care of the children in our lives.