It’s easy to see how it happens. You’ve had a string of broken nights and too-early mornings. Your coffee just made you feel edgy, not better. Everywhere you look, there are things that need to be done: dishes, laundry, clutter. And you can’t do them because your 18-month-old is clingy and contrary — maybe he’s teething or maybe he’s in the throes of toddler negativity. Whatever it is, he is not fun to be with.
Then you serve lunch, and he suddenly freaks out about being put in his high chair, throws himself backward shrieking as you lift him in, kicks your soup bowl off the table and somehow manages to jab your eye as he flails. And you feel it: a flare of red-hot rage so strong it leaves you shaky — and shaken.
What kind of parent can you be, to have such hateful feelings toward your own little child?
A perfectly normal parent, says Laura Bradley, a Vancouver family counsellor. “This is one of the most intense relationships we have,” she says. “And it is the only one where we expect ourselves to have loving thoughts toward another person all the time!”
The toddler stage — when children yo-yo between clinginess and defiance and are driven to push us in their push toward autonomy — is bound to trigger our anger at times. That’s OK, says Bradley; what’s important is how we deal with it.
“It’s not appropriate to direct our anger at our kids because it’s scary for them,” she says. (And, of course, physically hitting or shaking them can be downright dangerous.) Francine Roussy Layton, a mom of two who is also a clinical psychologist, agrees. “Finding different outlets for this emotion other than striking or screaming is essential,” she says.
So how do we handle our feelings of anger?
We know that when children are hungry, tired and frustrated, tantrums ensue — and we plan ahead to meet our kids’ needs before a tantrum threatens. We can reduce our own vulnerability to anger in the same way, suggests Bradley. “Think, ‘I’m tired and have a short fuse today. What do I need to change in my day to take care of myself so I can take care of my toddler?’ That’s a very proactive, grown-up way to deal with that.”
Build in breaks If you get a few minutes to yourself, try not to use it doing dishes, says Bradley. “Tell yourself, ‘I have to put my feet up twice a day.’ When we lose patience with our children, it’s because we’re empty. We need to refuel.”
Connect with other moms Jean Welton goes out once a month with some girlfriends. “It’s a good way to blow off steam in an adult setting,” she says. “We do talk about our kids and it’s good to get some different perspectives.” Welton also posts on a website where moms share their experiences and feelings.
Hone your parenting skills Toddler meltdowns tend to trigger parent meltdowns, so Angela Wallace has worked hard to figure out what works for her “spirited” two-year-old. “When she’s calm, I’m calm.”
When anger does rise, how can we handle it?
Breathe deeply Anger is a physical reaction, says Bradley. “Your heart is pumping, adrenalin is released, so if you can slow that down, it slows down your reactivity and you’re able to think.” Slow, deep breathing calms the body which, in turn, helps us calm our emotions.
Let it out You may need to physically express that anger. If so, Bradley suggests a couple of non-violent, non-scary strategies: “Rip up egg cartons,” she says. “Keep a stack on the counter. It’s a great physical release. Or keep scrap paper and your kids’ crayons on hand — just strike the crayon across the paper.”
Step back Roussy Layton reminds herself to step back and compose herself before dealing with a maddening situation. “Adding some humour also seems to defuse the situation,” she says.
Call in reinforcements Welton tag-teams with her husband. “Fortunately, one or the other of us is rational when the other one is getting frustrated with the kids.”
Change your perspective “Though it has taken me four years to learn this,” says Welton, “I ask myself, ‘Will this matter in five years — or even five minutes?’”
Wallace says, “My trick is to try to remember that there are many people out there who can’t have children or who have lost children, who would love to have everything I am experiencing right now. It helps me realize that this little tantrum or whatever is very small in the grand scheme of things, that I am so lucky to have this lovable child.”
We all make mistakes, but when those mistakes are too frequent or too severe, our kids can suffer. When should you seek counselling to help with stress relief or anger management?
“The bottom line is safety,” says family counsellor Laura Bradley. “When your anger feels out of control, it’s good to get some help.” It’s not easy to admit to an anger problem, but remember, it’s your child’s well-being at stake. Look in the phone book under Marriage, Family & Individual Counselling, or ask your family doctor for a referral.