Think back to your childhood. Do you remember your father’s (or mother’s) angriest moment as a parent? Chances are it’s replaying in your mind right now in vivid detail. That’s because raw anger, while sometimes useful for action, often results in dramatic, destructive and regrettable parenting.
As a father of teenagers, I’ve had my share of parenting moments, usually involving a disciplinary situation, when I could have used some intervention. But I’ve also learned a few things about anger management along the way. My first tip would be to think of parental anger as a three-stage process: before, during and after. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare for each stage that can reduce anger and improve family life.
Anger management: The “before” stage
The best way to avoid destructive anger is to prevent it. For example, we know hunger and lack of sleep can make all children (and adults) irritable. But also remove other triggers in your home as much as possible. As our children got older, morning battles decreased when we added time to our routines; junk food disputes decreased as we loaded the refrigerator with healthier food; and cell phone battles decreased when we subtracted time from their allowed use.
None of these changes were quick and painless, but gradually they reduced flare-ups. In all cases, however, be sure your expectations of your children’s behavior are appropriate and unrelated to any of your own pet peeves.
Anger management: The “during” stage
Admittedly, the approaching-out-of-control stage of anger is much harder to navigate. One place to start might be a warning system. When my kids were very young and I felt my anger rising, I would half-joke: “Last chance to deal with Nice Daddy instead of Angry Daddy.” Surprisingly, that sometimes headed off a confrontation.
Another tool for stopping anger from growing comes from the classic parenting book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The authors recommend avoiding a long, well-rehearsed rant about any issue by summarizing it “in one word.” For example, if your child has not cleaned his or her dishes for the hundredth time, you simply state: “Dishes!” (I also used “Jacket!” and “Seat belt!” in a loud voice when needed.) This technique prevents you from bringing unrelated, self-esteem damaging labels into the charged situation; the one word keeps the focus on the behavior, not the child.
Finally, if your anger escalates to a dangerous degree, have a go-to last resort that avoids an emotionally (or physically) damaging response. Granted, sometimes you have to take action for safety’s sake, but beyond that try to find a de-escalation technique that works for you. I used timeouts more for me than for my kids, but they helped me cool off. Some people use “time ins” and try to reconnect with their child; others go silent for a time. Whatever you develop, the goal is to avoid regrettable action that could become a searing, long-term memory for your child. (Please note that if you are having serious trouble controlling your anger as a parent, consider seeking professional help.)
Anger management: The “after” stage
Although it occurs last, the “after” stage might be the most important. Assuming there’s been no irreversible damage, this stage allows a parent the chance to model forgiveness, self-acceptance, and how to make amends. Who doesn’t love a “do over,” right? After a heated moment recedes, plan some quiet time with your child (or a calm family meeting) to discuss what happened and why you became angry. Brainstorm together how such a situation might be avoided in the future. Modeling how to navigate anger and its aftermath will help children develop self-discipline for the rest of their lives.
When we think back to our parents’ angriest moments during our childhood, we realize now that deep inside they were probably also struggling with the many invisible stressors of adulthood. But at the time, all we saw on the outside was their raw, unproductive anger. Try to remember that the next time your child angers you.