By Elizabeth Bruce
It’s a dirty little secret. Good mothers get angry. Sometimes they get really angry. Stay-at-home moms do it, working moms do it, all moms do it. Take it from me. I am the mother of four young children, two of them, er, “spirited,” so I know a thing or two about maternal anger. Kids will be kids, and as such, they will get into trouble, fight, wreck things, and argue with you. As an adult, it is often hard to sympathize with children’s irrational, destructive, messy, or loud behaviors.
Anger does not mean that you don’t love your children dearly. In fact, just the opposite is true. If we did not care, we would never get angry. Anger is a natural reaction to reaching your limits. Even the venerable Dr. Spock admitted to screaming “Shut up” to his infant when it would not stop crying in the middle of the night. So why are we so ashamed to admit that we share this very human emotion? Unfortunately, as mothers we set often impossibly high standards for ourselves. It is, in fact, unrealistic to expect to spend our waking hours with children and never get angry. The important thing, it would seem, is how we choose to deal with anger.
Here are some helpful tips I have learned over my eleven years as a very imperfect parent.
Avoid your trigger points
Just like much of modern discipline involves keeping the child out of bothersome situations, so does anger management involve keeping yourself out of potentially explosive situations. If you know that you are likely to lose it every time your child has a certain friend over, invite a calmer friend over instead. If you know that two of your children always fight in the car, seat them as far apart as possible, and maybe offer a distraction. Activities that are supposed to be for the children (i.e., piano, soccer, baseball) often end up driving everyone in the family to distraction. If getting your child to a certain activity is overwhelming, find a good carpool or simply drop the activity for six months to a year. Sometimes it is better to withdraw from an activity than to scream at the kids every week on the way there. Remember, kids need time to unwind with unstructured play more than they need structured activities every moment of the day.
Recently, I stopped taking my three-year-old to a certain bagel bakery because the store next door has Thomas the Tank Engine books in the window. My son would have a major tantrum every time we passed by, so now I go alone while he is at preschool. I know other moms of small children who do all their grocery shopping at night or on Saturdays to avoid taking their kids to the store. You know your own hot spots – just avoid taking the kids there until they’re older. Prevention can go a long way towards saving your sanity.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
I got this wise advice from my husband’s 94-year-old grandmother. Her attitude was, ‘if he’s not potty-trained by the time he’s 30, let his wife worry about it.’ Hear, hear! The same goes for weaning, wetting the bed, and other immature behaviors that the child will eventually outgrow. While it can be frustrating, try to remember that he is not doing it on purpose to annoy you; he is just not ready to grow up. It is best to just matter-of-factly change the sheets, breastfeed the toddler, or whatever it takes to maintain the peace. Obviously, certain actions always require swift action, such as running into the street or hurting another child. Anger in these situations is normal, natural, and probably helps the child to understand the gravity of his actions. In contrast, do you really want to get angry every time your child can’t decide what to wear? Let’s face it, most stuff with kids is small stuff. Before you lose your temper, ask yourself if it is something you can ignore. Once the child stops getting negative attention, he may even stop the annoying behavior.
Think like a teacher
Good teachers know that anger is not an effective way to manage children’s behavior. The best teachers have a cool confidence that says, “I am in control.” They have clear consequences outlined for misbehavior, which makes the kids less likely to go astray. Children find limits reassuring, which is one reason why teachers have far fewer discipline problems than the average parent does. Of course, a teacher does not have the emotional attachment to your child that you do. This also works to her advantage. As in a classroom, it’s a good idea to have a few non-negotiable rules at home. You as the parent can decide what these will be, but it is a good idea to keep your list short. The fewer things there are to fight about, the better.
Emotionally divorce your children
This one is admittedly the hardest advice to follow. When a child is misbehaving, it is tempting to get emotionally entangled with their misbehavior. For instance, because I am the first-born child in my family, I often unrealistically expect more from my oldest child than I do from the younger ones. Sometimes I have to remind myself that he is still a child as well.
My son and I have fought about everything from what pants he should wear to what foods he should pack in his lunch. Then one day, I just decided he was old enough to make his own decisions about what he wears and what he eats. Suddenly, the fighting just stopped! Once it was no longer an issue, he began making better (although not always to my standards) choices.
We parents take our children’s behavior personally because we desperately want them to succeed in life. If we let them “get away with it,” we fear, other people will not like them. While this is a reasonable fear, most loved children act much better around other adults than they do with their parents. As long as they know how we feel about an issue, they are not getting away with anything when they disobey. Children’s little consciences work hard, and no child really wants to go against his parent’s wishes. While the child may get a sense of power from embroiling you in a life-or-death struggle, ultimately, such false power makes him feel insecure. He knows that you, not he, should be the parent. Another problem is that we consciously or unconsciously react in just the way our own parents reacted to similar behavior. If our own parents freaked out at what they perceived as disrespect, we do too. Suddenly, your child saying “no” to you sends you into a disproportionate rage. Try and recall your own parents’ reactions to misbehavior so you don’t go into auto-pilot with your own kids.
Surrender to your sense of humor
We have a family bed with our two younger children, which comes with its own absurdities, such as trying to sleep on a square inch of mattress. One night last winter, my daughter threw up on us in the middle of the night. The virus had already ripped through the older children, so we had been doing laundry and carpet-cleaning all day. We were tired, but dragged ourselves out of bed, changed all the sheets, gave her a bath and congratulated ourselves on the fact that the two-year-old was still sleeping soundly after being moved, etc. As soon as we turned off the light and the four of us had snuggled back into our clean bed, the toddler did a spectacular projectile vomit. He had eaten hot dogs for dinner. My husband and I looked at each other and started laughing until we cried. I actually have a pleasant memory of the smelly scene because my husband and I were able to keep our sense of humor. Anger, while it would have been an understandable reaction, would not have changed the fact that stuff needed cleaning up. I am quite sure that if you have young children, there are plenty of funny things going on in your house. Just pretend it’s your friend who sucked up the third shoelace with the vacuum. Then you might see the humor in the situation.
Ask for help
There is no shame in asking for help when you need it. Better yet, ask before you need it. We live in an unnaturally autonomous society, where mothers are almost solely responsible for the care of young children. Historically, human societies have understood that mothers need help, and lots of it! If you are isolated in a new town without friends or relatives nearby, find some other mothers to form a babysitting co-op with. All moms need help, so willing spirits are not hard to find. You can meet these mothers anywhere parents congregate – preschools, churches, community swimming classes. Just reach out to other moms; you will be glad you did.
Take time out for yourself
Anger is actually a helpful clue that we are feeling used and/or resentful. It is a natural reaction to giving 100% of ourselves to others. Mothers need adult companionship, nurturing, and alone time. Occasionally, we even need to use the bathroom with the door shut! There is the old analogy to a bank account, in which you must make deposits in order to make withdrawals. Once your account is overdrawn, it is too late. The best time to do things for yourself is before you reach the boiling point. Instead of cleaning up while the baby is napping, call a friend or have a cup of tea. Set aside some time every single day to exercise, stretch, or meditate. Any activity that relaxes you will help make you a better parent, which is good for everyone.
The next time you lose your temper, take a step back. Imagine a good friend was confessing your actions to you. Wouldn’t you be sympathetic instead of judgmental? Try to have the same compassion for yourself as you would towards a friend. As a mother, you are doing the best you can. No, you are not perfect, and never will be. Remember, tomorrow is another day. If it helps, apologize to your children after losing your temper. You will be setting a good example for them to follow.
Anger is a naturally occurring human emotion, and as such, it is neither good nor bad, it just is. One of the best gifts we can give our children is to show them constructive ways of dealing with anger. Then some day you can pat yourself on the back for the great way your grandchildren are being raised.
Elizabeth Bruce is a Certified Childbirth Educator with BirthWorks and a mother of 4. She resides in Lortan , VA and is also the author of Get Through Childbirth In One Piece!