"I never knew I had a temper until I had children. No one told me I could get so enraged at someone I love so much," says a parent.
"When my daughter was sick and refused to take her medicine, I got so angry that I left the room because I was afraid I was going to force it down her throat," says another.These are not the words of child abusers, but of loving responsible parents who - like their children - reach the end of their rope and sometimes have temper tantrums.
There isn't a parent alive who hasn't blown his or her cool with a child. Getting angry at children is a normal, universal, though not usually desirable, phenomenon. All it takes for sparks to fly is combining, for an intolerable amount of time, one overtired, frustrated, undercontrolled parent with one overenergized, demanding, self-absorbed child.
Later, the parent experiences chagrin and guilt over the fact that a child can send him or her into a temper tantrum as unbridled as the child's own. And the parent often feels sorrow. "I deeply regret the vengeful, abusive words I can't take back," laments one such parent.
Though parents cannot escape feeling angry at children, they can learn to temper that anger in ways that won't bruise the fragile spirit of the people they love most. Here are strategies to consider:
- Bear in mind that you're the heavyweight and the profound responsibility that that entails. Expressing anger to children is a tricky business, complicated because of the starkly uneven power differential between parent and child, points out Irene Pickhardt, author of the article, "Good and Angry." She asks a question which parents can usefully address: "How does the big guy show legitimate anger to the little guy without bullying or intimidation?"
- Think about how you look when you're angry and ask yourself whether you'd like to be on the other end of your wrath. Laments one mother: "Sometimes I can't believe how mad I sound. I get so angry with my son that my eyes bulge and my face turns red. I must look like a monster."
Also think, "How would I feel if I heard someone else talking to my child like that?"
- Use the EXIT technique. If you find yourself losing control, leave the scene - now. If your child is old enough to understand, say you're blowing your circuits. Say you need some time to put yourself back together. Say you don't want to say or do things you might later regret. Say you'll be back when you can talk reasonably about what's happening.
- Take frequent temperature readings. Learn to read your own physical signs of stress build-up - say, tight muscles, a flushed face, a raise in voice level.
In today's world, you may be chronically overextended and overstressed and, as a result, your child may suffer. In the words of one author, all that needs to occur is something like "a dirty frying pan in the sink that shouldn't be there, followed by a rude retort, a barking dog and perhaps a letter from the IRS inviting you to be audited" and you may be at your child's throat - simply because he or she is in your space.
"Children are lightening rods for free-floating anger," says Pickhardt, "easy to locate and focus on."
- When you feel stressed and your temperature reads "high," consider these survival tips for the hopelessly harried, suggested by Brenda Lane Richardson, author of the article "Losing Your Cool?":
- Try deep breathing.
- Turn on some music. If you can't get to a radio, try a few bars of "My Favorite Things" or the love theme from "The Terminator."
- Make a phone call. Put your child in a safe place, and reach out and touch a friend, relative, or neighbor.
- Adopt a catchphrase such as "Firm, but calm," or "This too, shall pass." Use it as emotional balm.
- Do a little quiet reading. Thumb through a few parenting books. Or try looking through your child's photo album. "Seeing that sweet, smiling face might help you remember that there's a nice kid lurking inside the little devil in the next room," says Richardson.
- Get physical. Clean the house, walk a dog (briskly), do some aerobics.
- Treat yourself to occasional "benign" temper tantrums. There are times you may be at the breaking point and need to let off steam. Do it without hurting your child. Jean Marzollo, author of the article "Parents Have Tantrums, Too," illustrates with this story of a father of two children in high chairs. The father relates: "They were eating with their fingers and had food all over their faces, hands and hair. They had no regard for anything. Food was everywhere.
"Suddenly I couldn't stand it any more.
" `Look,' I said, `Does this look nice?'
"I grabbed their mashed bananas and smeared them all over my face. They copied me and laughed with glee. I felt like a complete fool and went off to the bathroom to wash."
- When you do express anger, consider adopting the view of the late child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott, who called finding humane ways of expressing parental anger "the work of a lifetime."
Pichardt says parents who are dedicated to such excellence "use mental rehearsal to keep on their toes. In advance, they select words that don't wound but let their children know that they're angry.
One of the payoffs for the measured expression of anger, notes Richardson, is a child who "will emerge with a healthy sense of self-esteem and an ability to stay level-headed in the most trying situations." Sometimes there's even an unexpected bonus, she reports. After work to temper her own anger she overheard her young son saying to his best friend: "I know, I know, we'd better not tell your mother about this yet. But we can tell my mom - she almost never gets angry."
"More than any paycheck or compliment ever received," reports Richardson, "this was my best reward."