“I know that when my older son becomes aggressive toward my toddler, it's because he feels disconnected and is looking for more attention from me. I know that he can't control himself, but instead of answering his need and reacting in a loving way, I feel really, really mad. How can I switch from being crazy mad to being a loving and sweet mom when something happens that pushes my buttons? What's the secret?”
Dear Good Mom:
Every parent I’ve ever known has wondered what do to when your kids push you over the edge. And unfortunately, there is no fountain of endless patience we can tap into at moments like this. But there are effective ways to ward off parent anger. Some let us vent, some help us find laughter or companionship as the anger boils, but all of them will empower your child, and reduce your parenting guilt.
Here are a five ways to help you and your children through fiery moments.
1. Make an I Love You Sign
Make a sign with your kids or have them make a “Daddy/Mommy, I love you,” sign and store it someplace hidden but handy. Tell your child that he can pull it out and show it to you any time you begin to get upset. It may jolt you out of reaction mode and help you remember your child’s innate good intentions.
2. Give your child a song to sing, a sentence to say, or a magic word that means, “Mommy/Daddy, stop!”
The song could be anything at all—any nursery tune. The magic word could be “Bananas!” or “Falafel!” Choose it together. Ask you child to say that word whenever your tone of voice scares them, and promise to stop everything when you hear it.
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3. Create an “Upset Spot” for yourself. Practice using it.
For the times when you're angry and ready to do something wild, designate a “Daddy/Mommy is upset spot” in the house–a wall in your bedroom, a wall in the laundry room, a bed you can beat on with a broom handle. This is the place you'll go to pound on the wall or bed, or to jump up and down and make loud noises when you're upset.
Then, gather your children and tell them, “I don't want to be mean to you when I have big angry feelings inside of me. So when that happens, I am going to go to the ‘Mommy's/Daddy’s Upset Spot.’ It’s right here.” Show them the spot. Then tell them that you're going to make noise there and pound on something, and that after some minutes of doing that, you might be able to think well again.
Then, do few “anger drills” with them. Do a very light rendition of an upset in the kitchen, with your children right there, a comic little-tiny-voiced imitation of an anger moment, without using serious words. So you would say something like, “You cabbage! Why are you so hard to cut? You are supposed to be softer. I'm so upset with you, you green cabbage, you!” Then say, “Now I'm going to go to my spot, and let go of these feelings!” March off to your spot in a lighthearted way, and again, with humor, jump up and down or beat on the bed. Then, say, “Ahhhhh! I feel much better,” and give them a big hug.
Do this playful drill a few times.
Then, do it in real life around something that mildly ticks you off, so you and your children get some practice runs before you really do go off the deep end. Ask them whether they want you to leave the door open, or to close it, when you go to your Upset Spot. Try it both ways, so they can make their choice.
It can scare our children to see the long-held emotions beneath our anger, so this is not an entirely risk-free solution. Be sure not to say the feelings you're having out loud, but think them as passionately as you want. Don't say, “Why did I ever have children!” or “I just want to throw you through the window!” or “I'm a terrible parent! I can't do this any more! I want out!” Growl or roar instead. Children need to be protected from listening to feelings like these. Do tell them that you just need to make noise and cry hard so you can feel better soon.When they get the hang of this, your children may tell you that it's time for you to go to your Upset Spot. It's maddening, but it helps.
Creating an Upset Spot works because when we’re angry, we have tapped into feelings of being threatened that are very likely rooted in our own early childhoods. We’re driven by the urge to fight back with all the power we didn’t have as children. When we have a safe place to use our physical power and be loud, we remind ourselves, on a cellular level, that we’re grown, that we do have power, that we’re no longer really threatened
4. Engage your most non-judgmental friends to receive a phone call
When your anger rises it's kinder to have friends listen to your upset, instead of aiming it at your child. To set this up make a nice big list of their names and numbers – you can add a drawing or photo of them and then let your child practice calling them. When you are ready to blow, hand her the phone – if she hasn't run to get it already.
5. Lie down on the spot, and stay there.
Yes! You read that right! Don’t go to the sofa or the bed—lie down right where you stand. You’re not thinking straight, so give up trying to be in charge. Lie down on the kitchen floor, or wherever you happen to be. Let your children continue with the goofy things they're doing. Let them act out. You're not in shape to handle it. So give up trying.
Sometimes, lying down can allow you to find the feelings that are roiling inside you and cry. Do that. Cry hard. Generally, if someone in the family cries, others will stop the behavior that was a signal for help because a healing process has begun. If you can allow yourself to cry, it will shift your children's attention and behavior. But you might not always cry. Here's how one mom says lying down helped in the heat of one exchange.
“I am uniquely bad at conflict and my kids were having an argument about who got to go first at something. I was in the middle of it and getting frustrated with the whole thing when I turned around and threw myself down on the floor, giving up being in charge. I think I felt such relief that I LAUGHED harder than I have in a very long time! It was that kind of wonderful uncontrollable belly laughter that you just can't stop coming out of you. The kind that would have you floating to the ceiling if you were in that scene of Mary Poppins. I could NOT stop LAUGHING! And the kids LOVED this! It definitely did open up creative channels and defuse the irritation that was building in me.”
Because you’re not trying to be in charge, and because humans are wired for connection, your children will eventually come closer. They will come to sit on your tummy, or bring you a ball to play with—they’ll take initiative to repair the connection. They can’t take that initiative when you’re standing before them, scary and full of upset. They can venture to take initiative when you’re on the floor and regrouping. And when they come around, you all get a fresh start with one another.
These are five recommendations for how to handle volatile moments with steps that empower your child so they no longer have to stand frozen in fear when you are upset.
Take some time to put these into action ahead of time. Practicing will increase your child’s chances of taking action instead of going into defensive paralysis at difficult moments. And generally, when we stop ourselves part way through an anger incident, we can shed the feelings that drive our behavior much more easily and we save ourselves from the full weight of guilt that comes with being harsh with our children.
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Patty Wipfler is the founder of Hand in Hand Parenting and the author of the book Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges. Having spent 40-years working with children and families, Patty has touched the lives of thousands, showing them how to listen, play and gently set limits, working through tears and conflict to love and connection.