It’s a weekday morning and I’m making breakfast. My eight-year-old daughter sits down to eat, but my five-year-old son is MIA. Suddenly, a gruesome wail echoes through the house. I dash to my son’s room to find him star-fished on the floor in his underwear, clothes strewn everywhere.
“What’s happening?” I ask. “Are you hurt?”
“My pants feel weird!” he shrieks.
I can’t help but groan. This is day three that his pants don’t “feel right.” I calmly suggest different pairs, but none will do—too tight, too loose, have pockets, or otherwise somehow offensive. After kicking off a fourth pair, he throws himself back to the floor.
That’s when my hands start to shake. My heart starts to pound and my face grows hot. I hurl all the pants on his bed, shout that he’s going to school in his goddamn underwear, and storm out.
It was not my finest moment.
I’m not actually an angry person—friends have even referred to me as Zen. And yet, since becoming a mother, particularly once my second child hit his toddler years, I’ve experienced more moments of outright rage than I care to admit. I’ve had to flee to my bedroom, shut the door and scream or cry or both. Sometimes, I feel generally pissed off at everyone and everything, and even the smallest infraction will incite rage.
This is not the mom I want to be.
What is rage and is it different than anger?
“Rage is when the anger becomes uncontrollable,” says Jen Reddish, a registered master therapeutic counsellor in Calgary whose focus is on helping new mothers cope with issues like anger, rage and guilt. “The anger has overpowered you. You tell yourself you’re not going to slam the door, yell at your kid, or tell your spouse to f*ck off, but when it happens, you can’t stop it.”
Moms can be prone to rage because the transition to motherhood is, frankly, way harder than most of us think it will be.“There are so many changes—every mom is thrown, at least a little, by the reality of motherhood versus their expectations,” says Reddish.
What’s more, mothers often take care of everyone else, putting their own needs aside. “If basic needs like getting enough sleep and eating properly aren’t being met, you’re going to have a hard time dealing with any emotion, let alone rage,” explains Reddish. “That’s how it builds up: unprocessed emotions and experiences along with unmet needs. And the tipping point often feels ridiculous. You keep your calm all day, then your child asks for a snack before dinner, and you explode.”
Understanding your triggers
We typically think people fly into a rage, that it comes out of nowhere. But the experts say that’s not really how it works. “Imagine an iceberg,” says Reddish. “What’s on the surface is the outward displays of anger. But what’s lurking underneath is so much bigger to create this feeling of rage—unprocessed emotions from that day and from your lifetime. You don’t actually go from zero to 100 in an instant.”
Triggers could be when your kids don’t listen, when they hurt their sibling or if plans go sideways. Megan Helm is still figuring out what sparks her rage. “I’ve realized that noise is a trigger for me,” says the Cochrane, Alta. mother of two. “With a three-and-a-half-year-old and an 18-month-old, things can get pretty loud, and when it’s too loud for too long, my jaw starts to clench and I find myself yelling.”
Helm first began experiencing mom rage four months after her second child was born. “I felt so angry,” she recalls. “I was yelling at my kids for being the way they’re supposed to be.”
That’s not unusual. Experts say rage triggers can be things that, intellectually, you know shouldn’t let bother you. Other times, you might find yourself screaming at your kids when they literally did nothing at all. “Often, triggers have nothing to do with the child,” says Laura Markham, a New York-based clinical psychologist, parenting coach and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “It could be from fighting with your partner, a bad day at work or unresolved issues from childhood.”
There’s no magic behind figuring out what sparks your anger; both Reddish and Markham suggest simply keeping a log of when you get angry to see if you can find patterns. I, for one, have noticed I’m quick to anger when I’m running late or if I’m feeling sad about my mom, who I lost unexpectedly months after my son was born.
How to cope
If you’re committed to working on your rage, there are various strategies you can try.
- Write it down. Journalling comes naturally to some and feels awkward to others, but experts say it offers an effective way to work towards resolving your rage issues. “Say it’s your child’s defiance that triggers you,” says Markham. “Write down what ‘defiance’ means to you.” You may learn that you react because you would never have spoken rudely to your parents. Or, maybe you’re scared that if your kid acts like this now, what will they be like when they’re 14? “Once you’re able to identify and articulate your feelings like powerlessness and fear, they won’t just burst out,” says Markham. Reddish agrees. “The more you can express your emotions honestly, the less likely you will accumulate anger,” she says. “This deeper level of self-care goes way beyond a bath or a massage.”
- Meditate. Once considered New-Agey, meditation is another proven technique to integrate calm into your life. Markham recommends listening to a guided meditation every day—there are plenty of meditation-focussed YouTube channels, not to mention apps (Calm, Buddhify and Stop, Breathe & Think are a few)—and they’ll actually help retrain your brain. “When you need to calm down, you can draw on that wiring,” she says. “Even sticky notes around your house saying ‘breathe’ can help.”
- Figure out what you need. You can’t always control your kids, so control what you can control. If you know you get hangry, don’t let it happen, and choose healthy foods that sustain you for longer. If, like Helm, you know you rage when you’re exhausted, take steps to move your bedtime earlier or prioritize naps. “When I have a lack of sleep, my tolerance is so low that anything can set me off,” admits Helm. And don’t underestimate the power of taking a walk. The fresh air, change of scenery and exercise can go a long way to changing your mood. So can just talking to someone—maybe your partner, maybe a close friend—who will truly listen, without trying to fix or minimize your problems. “Anger is a secondary emotion,” says Reddish. “There’s always an underlying emotion. Am I sad? Am I anxious? Am I overwhelmed?” Figure out what need is being unmet and satisfy it.
- Consider getting help. Professional support is something to consider, especially when dealing with complex triggers like grief, anxiety and abuse, or rage that you or your family feels is out of control. This can range from workshops and support groups to individual counselling.
You’re not alone
“I fully lost my sh*t and raged uncontrollably at my preschooler this morning,” said no mom at a playgroup, ever. Seriously though, while moms are sharing the hard stuff more and more these days, mom rage isn’t a common conversation. I rarely share how I can totally lose it.
Like me, many moms rarely experienced rage before motherhood, so to suddenly find ourselves unable to rein in the anger with our little ones can be both surprising and upsetting. Moms often struggle in solitude because they feel ashamed. “When I would mention to other moms that I have postpartum rage, they’d look at me like I have two heads,” says Helm. “But then we’d talk about what happens, and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, that actually happens to me, too.’
“The acknowledgement that other parents deal with rage helps,” says Helm. “You don’t feel so alone. I started saying, my kids deserve better. Then I said, I deserve better.” That realization encouraged Helm to seek resources, including Reddish’s rage and motherhood workshops. “As scary as it seemed to go talk with others, I felt very heard,” she says. “The women around me were feeling similar things. Rage happens and I shouldn’t feel guilty about everything.”
Change is possible
You know raging is bad for your kids. Not only is it scary for them and potentially dangerous, but when you can’t regulate your own feelings, you can’t teach them to deal with theirs. “Everyone repeats the relationships they grew up with,” says Markham. But rage is also bad for you. “Studies show [people who rage] are more likely to have a heart attack, elevated blood pressure, and be in a bad mood more often,” says Markham.
But change is 100 percent possible. Think of wherever you are now as your starting place. “It’s a progression,” says Helm. “Change isn’t something that happens overnight. I wanted so badly for it to be okay right away, but a year later, I’m still learning.”
Commit to making changes. “If you eat well for a month, lose weight and feel better, but then go right back to eating badly, it’s not going to last,” says Markham. “Try meditating 10 minutes a day for 90 days—that makes a solid habit. You will absolutely see a difference.”
To combat my mom rage, I’ve been trying to get more sleep and exercise. I limit my daily to-do list so I don’t run late and get aggravated. I dig deeper by journaling, and when I do erupt, I examine honestly why I got upset. Then I try to deal calmly with what is usually grief and frustration.
As a parent of two young boys, Reddish has had her own moments of rage, usually stemming from feeling overwhelmed and under-supported. She likens dealing with rage to quieting a child. “You can’t just lock them away—the child will likely scream louder. But if you take care of the child, you’re more likely to calm that child. In the same way, the more you suppress anger, the more it will become rage. But the more you nurture and take care of it, the better off you’ll be. Look at anger as a tool to help you learn and make changes.”
Ultimately, rage is a red flag signalling that something in your life needs urgent attention. “You’re never going to live a life without experiencing anger,” says Reddish. “But if you listen to your anger, and learn to manage your triggers, then you can live a life without rage.”
In the heat of the moment
Avoiding your triggers and getting to the root of the issue is key to preventing mom rage. But what should you do in the moment, when rage strikes?
If you can safely leave—if your kids are old enough, or if another safe adult is around, for example—then that’s a good option. If not, as simple as it sounds, try to breathe. “Deep breaths tell our body it’s not an emergency, and it’s okay to calm down,” says Markham.
Experiment with actions that break you out of your rage and calm you down—it may be quietly repeating a mantra or splashing cold water on your face. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. If you perceive your anger as completely justified—say, your kid steals something—you may think you need to take action right away. But you don’t, Markham says. Nothing constructive happens from expressing your rage at your kids because effective discipline is best delivered calmly and rationally. Plus, she says, “you want your child to know that you don’t just do what you feel when you’re angry.”
This article was originally published online in September 2019.