By Alisa J. Holleron
Several years ago, Ricky Byrdsong, Sr., was killed only a few blocks from my house, while taking an evening stroll with his children. He was shot down by a young man who clearly had hatred for Africans-Americans, Jews, and Asians, as his shooting spree was directed at people belonging to these groups. My then-10-year-old son, whose best friend lives on that block, had spent many hours playing with the children there, including Ricky’s son. He was overcome with grief.
Not long before that, my family was glued to the television and newspapers, watching news about the shootings at Columbine High School . After reading so much about the students and teacher who were killed, we felt as though we knew them personally. Like many other Americans, we became so involved that we could easily imagine it happening at our own school.
These explosions of hatred and anger are puzzling and disturbing to every parent I know. How do people, especially young people, come to feel so much rage and desire to kill? What can we do as parents to prevent this? How do we explain these things to our children?
As a facilitator of parenting workshops, I work with parents on understanding their emotional reactions to their children. Without question, the issue that is raised more than any other is parental anger. One day, listening to a woman talk about how angry she gets with her children, a light bulb clicked on in my head: I realized that the best way to understand the anger in our society is to understand the anger inside of us. The best way to teach our children is to be role models, by looking at and understanding our own anger.
Working with the anger that we feel toward our children is a good place to begin. We love our children deeply, yet we have the capacity to get extremely angry with them. Many parents report being surprised by, and ashamed of, the intensity of this anger. They promise themselves they won’t get angry, and then they do. They worry about the effect this has on their children.
In exploring our anger toward our children, the most important thing to understand is that anger and fear are closely related. Although we are often unaware of feeling fear, it is always just below the surface when we are angry. Because we are unaware of it, we focus on the situation that is causing us anger.
For instance, if children are defiant, we assume we become angry because they are not going along with the program. What we often don’t realize is that our angry reaction is coming from the fear that is created by their behavior. We may be afraid that defiant children will not learn the things they need to learn in order to be successful adults. Or we might be afraid that a child’s defiance is the result of incorrect parenting–that we are failures as parents. The underlying fear creates the intensity of the emotion.
Fear often comes from the high expectations we have for ourselves or our children. We live in a high-stress, fast-paced society in which we are expected to cope with difficult jobs, be available emotionally to our children, maintain a home, balance work and home effectively, love and support our families, provide educational and enhancing activities for our children, and provide fun family time. If we think we are not living up to those expectations, fear is created.
When we decide to have children, we do so believing that we can be good parents and raise good children. When those beliefs are threatened, fear can result. It is natural then to want to change things, to make everything right so that we do not feel the fear. Fear can cause us to be controlling. When children behave in a worrisome way, we want to make them behave correctly because the fear is too uncomfortable for us. We expect them to change their behavior; if they don’t, it is natural to push harder, and for emotions to intensify. We are desperately trying to make things the way we need them to be, so that we can feel okay.
Fear is a driving force within us, and yet we are often unaware of it. Bringing awareness to fear can be very effective in shifting anger. By facing our fears, we can see more clearly that we are trying to control something that may be beyond our control. Facing that can help us “let go.” But how is that done?
The first step in the process is to research your anger. Pretend you are a scientist. When you find yourself getting angry, take a step back and look at the emotion and how it feels in your body. Where do you feel anger? Notice what the physical sensation of anger is like. Notice the thoughts that are going through your head. Notice the stress in your body. Does the anger move through your body? Does it feel like a solid or a liquid or energy? Investigate your anger when it arises. Become intimately acquainted with it.
One of the characteristics of emotions is that they can totally take over. When you “witness” your anger, as described above, you are detaching yourself slightly from it. When you do that, you have more control. Once you become aware of your anger, you can make some choices when you find yourself getting angry. You can decide that you are not going to make the anger go away, but you are not going to express it either.
Let yourself just “sit” with the anger. If possible, remove yourself physically from your child, and focus on your experience of the emotion you are feeling. It’s very difficult to just sit with anger. Anger is painful and difficult and wants to be loud and expressive. If you can sit with it, without expressing it, you are likely to sink into the fear underlying it.
While you sit in the anger, ask yourself what you are afraid of. The fears underlying most parental anger tend to fall into one of several categories:
1. We worry that our children will not be happy and successful. When we see them struggling, we worry about what this will mean for their future. Will they grow into happy, healthy, successful adults? If they are being rebellious, and not learning from us, we may think that they will never get what it takes to be a successful adult.
2. We want very much to be good parents. When our children do not do “well,” we may worry that we are not being good parents. We also may feel embarrassed and anxious about how their behavior reflects on us.
3. We want to guard our children from feeling pain. We see them doing things that disturb us, and we are afraid that what they are doing will cause them pain. We may see them do things that we did as children and that caused us pain.
4. We see something in our children that we do not like in ourselves. For instance, a mother is upset because her child is unsociable and unfriendly. It may be that the mother also struggles with social situations, and it is painful to see the same thing in her child–both because it reminds her of her own struggle, and because she is afraid that the child will suffer as a result of this trait.
Sinking into the fear underlying one’s anger is an uncomfortable and painful experience. Let yourself think or say the words describing your feelings; for instance, “I am scared that I am a terrible parent!” or “I’m scared that my child will be a failure” or “I’m afraid my child will feel the same pain I felt as a child.” In feeling our fear, we are led into disappointment. We realize that even though we do our best as parents, we may not be all that we hoped to be. And although we desperately want our children to be happy and well adjusted, our control over them is limited.
Let yourself feel that disappointment and face the fact that although you have control over your child, your control is limited. Let yourself entertain the idea that you may not be able to change the behavior that is making you angry.
We can get locked into intense power struggles that become repetitive and unproductive. Letting go in this way, letting yourself feel the disappointment, will often allow the dynamic to shift enough so that something positive can happen. When you allow yourself to feel disappointment and sadness, it is easier to feel compassion for your child. It is difficult (if not impossible) to feel compassion when you are angry. Letting go breaks the power struggle and creates space for other approaches to address the problem. It may allow you to realize that what you and your child are battling over is not really that important. Or it may help you find better ways to work on the problem with your child.
Becoming acquainted in this way with anger, and the fear underlying it, can help us to work more productively and be more compassionate towards our children, and thereby provide valuable role modeling for them.
Alisa Holleron, MSW, is the mother of two boys, ages 13 and 18. A social worker for many years, she facilitates workshops in Chicago and Northern California that help parents understand their emotional reactions to their children. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org