Anger isn’t a bad emotion. Back in primitive times, when it was normal to be chased by a wild animal, your fight-or-flight stress reaction was the difference between life and death.
These days, as you parent through COVID-19, distance learning, social distancing, and other aspects of the pandemic — plus the normal frustrations and responsibilities of raising a child — something as simple as your kid refusing to put their shoes away can trigger that same stress response.
“Parents are doing so much, and anything challenging a child does can be magnified in terms of the impact,” says Mari Kurahashi, MD, co-director of the Stanford Parenting Center. “Stress levels are higher and reserves are lower. It’s a recipe for difficult interactions because everyone’s struggling.”
Your anger is normal, but how you handle it is crucial. Knowing where it comes from can help.
There’s a reason your kid makes you angrier than anyone else.
“Those we love and care about the most are the ones who cause us the most frustration,” Kurahashi says. “Not only do we love them; we feel a deep sense of responsibility for them. When they’re behaving in ways that are frustrating, we can feel inadequate, as if we have control over everything they do. It’s hard to keep perspective and not react.”
Each child is an individual, but they often seem like little mirrors that reflect “all of your past unresolved issues,” says Jennifer Rubens, a post-graduate therapist at Nurture House in Franklin, TN. “When something hasn’t been healed in you, you don’t give as much grace to others.”
Model Healthy Anger
Now more than ever, your kids see everything you do because you’re together so often.
“For me, it’s really important to break a cycle in my family that comes from addiction, mental illness, and rage. I want to provide a calm as possible environment so my kids can thrive,” says Lindsay Kavet, director of Expressing Motherhood in Los Angeles and mother of three kids, ages 14, 10, and 9. “I want to have an open, good relationship with them when they’re adults.
“A few years ago, someone said, ‘Life will be hard enough for them. We have to be the soft place for them.’ That really resonated with me,” Kavet says.
Even when you think they’re not paying attention, what you do is more powerful than anything you say to your kids. If you want your child to have emotional literacy or understand what they’re feeling and healthy ways to express it, you have to show them how.
“Anger is so scary for children. It can be terrifying for them to see parents out of control and have it directed at them,” Kurahashi says. “It’s a tremendous responsibility we have. It’s OK to feel angry. It’s a normal, healthy emotional reaction. What you do with it matters.”
Repressed anger can become depression. If you can, talk your children through your anger to identify it and show it’s OK to feel it.
“What we want to do is identify that feeling for children so they understand it’s OK to express anger,” Rubens says. “You might say, ‘I’m feeling angry. I’m going to take some deep breaths because if I try to have a conversation it’s not going to go well.’ Or ‘I’m feeling angry today. Let’s do our breathing exercises or go for a run.’”
Whether they do it with you or not doesn’t really matter because you’re showing them what to do, Kurahashi says.
Recognize the Physical Signs of Anger
Anger comes on quickly and can be hard to slow down, but your body sends plenty of warning signals.
“Your breath may change. You may feel more heat or an increase in your heart rate,” Kurahashi says. “I tend to have tension in my neck; some people feel it in their jaw or fists.”
Make a Plan
Regular sleep and exercise give your body the rest and release you need to deal with frustrating situations.
Mental preparation is another important part of your plan. When you aren’t in the heat of the moment, come up with a phrase or mantra you can say to yourself when you feel your anger rising, such as “I am enough,” “I am more than my anger,” or “This too shall pass.”
“Think about it in advance and practice it when you’re mildly irritated,” Kurahashi says. “That way it gets ingrained because when we’re really angry it’s hard to think.”
Press the Pause Button
It’s easier said than done, but pausing keeps your anger in check.
“Pausing is a choice,” Kurahashi says. “We can get carried away and reactive. It feels like life or death, but it’s not. We can always stop and come back.”
When you feel anger rising up, pause and:
- Walk out of the room
- Get a glass of water
- Say a calming mantra
- Focus on a go-to image that’s relaxing to you, like a memory or place that’s special and calming
Involve Your Kids When You Can
“The endless cycle of cleaning the house makes me feel a little out of control. I feel my anger build and take it out on the kids,” Kavet says.
When her husband had back surgery during the pandemic, Kavet got an idea for a chore chart from an old TV show.
“We’ve been watching Little House on the Prairie at night, and the kids on that show are always doing chores,” she says. “My therapist says, ‘Talk to your kids and tell them what’s going on,’ so I told them, ‘I’m snapping at you a lot, and I don’t want to do that. It’d help me to have a chore chart.’
“It’s uncomfortable to tell them I’m yelling at them too much, but I’m doing a lot and not addressing it doesn’t make it go away. Now, instead of me having to ask them to do this and do that, they go to the chore chart.”
“When you’re empty, it’s hard to fill anyone else’s cup,” Rubens says. “Find creative ways for each parent to fill their own cup. If you have a partner, look at your schedules and find places where you can give each other breaks. If you don’t, ask for help if you can. Teach Grandma how to use Zoom so you can go in the other room and be, shut your eyes for 5 minutes. You just need your body to reset.”
Having a hard time shifting into serenity? Rubens suggests the five-senses method.
“Think of something for your eyes: What do you like to see? Your nose: What smell brings you joy? For your mouth, gum is an excellent stress release that builds serotonin and dopamine in your brain. Don’t eat the Hershey’s kiss: suck on it; savor it. What music makes you happy? Get a stress ball to release the energy in your hands.”
Choose to Connect
Work around the mental and physical isolation the pandemic has brought into your life.
When you get angry with a child who’s being difficult, some common things run through your mind. You might think: Why is my child so difficult? Why am I such a bad parent? Why is this so hard for me?
“You feel alone in that,” Kurahashi says. It can help to get connected. This is hard for all parents, and most parents have been in the exact situation that’s making you angry. So text or FaceTime a friend, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Or connect with others in a self-care setting.
“I have two young kids and I work. Lately I’ve been waking up earlier to do meditation,” Kurahashi says. “I found an online group and I feel connected while I’m doing it. It’s a great way to start the day.”
Rupture and Repair
You’re going to get angry, and that’s OK. Everyone deserves a redo. What’s more important is how you come back from it.
“It’s important for your children to know that ruptures are part of human relationships, Kurahashi says. “Repair is also important. When we’re not proud of how we’ve interacted with our kids, it’s important to apologize without immediately making it their fault.” Admit your part, and maybe later it can be a conversation about what the child can work on. Focus on wanting to fix your relationship.
And get ready for what comes next.
“I definitely do apologize; that’s something I’m good at,” says Kavet, who was brought up in a family that didn’t directly address their feelings. “But I know I have to take a deep breath because there’s going to be half an hour to an hour of them unloading on me afterward. When my kids sense my anger and they’re afraid, they try to manipulate me into calming down by saying things like, ‘This food’s really good, Mom.’ When Mom’s safe again, they open up and let it out.”
COVID-19 has unlocked new levels of stress in parents that may trigger mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
Seek support if you feel like you’re angrier more often and in a more severe way than other parents in similar situations, or if you have longstanding anger issues that have become part of your family culture.
“It’s not bad to have anger in front of your kids unless it’s hurting them,” Rubens says.