Growing up, my parents raged at each other — and us. It set a precedent for not understanding anger or how to deal with it from an early age, so that the only thing I thought about being upset was that it was dangerous to feel that way or be around that energy. As I grew into adulthood and embarked on relationships, I realized that instead of getting “angry,” I’d simply get “sad” which seemed like a safer way to feel.
Recently, my almost four-year-old daughter has been really testing limits. It’s a natural phase of development, her wanting her own independence, and as we’re navigating a lot of change with an upcoming divorce from my husband and temporarily living in a new locale with new people, it’s understandable she might feel overwhelmed. Unfortunately, my ability to be compassionate is somewhat limited to my ability to be compassionate with myself: I’ve always been told I’m too hard on myself and I can see now how I can be too hard on her, becoming a tiger mom when what she really needs is more love.
Last night, she once again decided that she didn’t want to go to bed. She was having too much fun. The disruption in sleep routine is another reason she’s having a hard time tempering her normally calm demeanor. After a 15-minute back-and-forth struggle, we were finally able to get into bed, side-by-side.
I asked her, “What is that you really need?”
Her response? “Compassion, love, and empathy.”
I was astounded.
“What does compassion mean for you?”
“It means love, kindness, kisses, and putting it all in my backpack,” she smiled at me.
Mothering a willful child helps me to deal with aspects of myself that I’ve shoved behind the veil of maturity and more practiced meditation. I’m learning that in the heat of the moment, if I can’t get myself in check, then I can do damage that may not show on the surface right now, but could very well lead her to a therapy room one day, sharing how her mother scarred her the same way I’ve sat in front of a therapist to say the same about my own tiger mother.
Given that anger isn’t something I’m accustomed to dealing with — how do I handle it better with my daughter now?
Separate the Stories and Relationships
I recognize that in the midst of our divorce, there are quiet and unhelpful stories I’m telling myself. Things like, “She loves her dad more than me, because he’s the fun one,” or “There are so many things he’s said and done that I’m still pissed about, and I know how much he loves her, so…”
It’s good for me to separate my relationship with my daughter from that of my future ex-husband, and to make sure that the one she and I have is distinct from the one she has with her father. Once, during a couples’ coaching session a year ago, the two facilitators told us that we had to be mindful of creating a triad dynamic where because our relationship wasn’t working out, that we would funnel all our energy into our daughter and she would feel the burden of being the “saving grace” of our family.
She and I will always have something different than what she has with her father — it’s inherent. And, rather than fighting it, trying to make sure we’re even, as my once super competitive nature would be prone to do, I can simply revel in what’s unique about mother-daughter dynamics and nurture what flows.
I can give myself the grace of understanding that we all get triggered and when our children act out, we can go to our primal brains where we start acting like children ourselves, throwing tantrums against wounds that were never healed and never their fault to begin with.
Psychologists call this phenomenon “ghosts in the nursery,” where our children stimulate the intense feelings of our own childhoods, and we often respond by unconsciously re-enacting the past that’s etched in our memories. It’s helpful to give ourselves grace in these moments, to remember that we’re all part of a common humanity and every parent has lost it at some point.
What I’m aiming to do is to be what Janet Lansbury calls, “unruffled.” The more I don’t let myself get caught up in the rise and falls of my daughter’s emotions, the calmer it’ll make her feel, because she’ll realize that I, as the authority figure, have it together and she won’t feel the added pressure of having too much power.
What’s more, I’ve been listening to Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, and what I love about her reflections about how her parents raised her and her brother is that her mother was even-keeled all the time. She didn’t indulge her children’s responses to the things that were happening in their lives too much, didn’t rush to their defenses, and didn’t sing their praises so that she and her brother only did well to gain that external validation. It’s this that I want to aspire to.
Find Ways to Get It Out — Just Not At Your Kids
I’m a blend of both right-brained creative thinking and left-brained logic, so I like to understand what happens on a real level when helping to remind myself of how I want to choose to show up. This explanation from Psychology Today and the tips on how to manage anger really helped cement things in for me today:
Imagine your husband or wife losing their temper and screaming at you. Now imagine them three times as big as you, towering over you. Imagine that you depend on that person completely for your food, shelter, safety, protection. Imagine they are your primary source of love and self-confidence and information about the world, that you have nowhere else to turn. Now take whatever feelings you have summoned up and magnify them by a factor of 1000. That is something like what happens inside your child when you get angry at him.
Of course, all of us get angry at our children, even, sometimes, enraged. The challenge is to call on our maturity so that we control the expression of that anger, and therefore minimize its negative impact.
This was what my parents did to me. This, and a lot of hitting. I know the psychological damage both emotional and physical abuse can incur, yet it’s surprising in those fight-or-flight moments, how quickly what you grew up understanding as “normal” can come back into play.
While you may not be responsible for your first thought, you are responsible for your next one, and that’s a key difference between a reaction and a response.
When I feel blood coursing through my veins, my heartbeat racing faster, and my throat starting to constrict, I know I’m in trouble.
I like this helpful tip that what’s happening is not actually an emergency:
The most important thing to remember about anger is NOT to act while you’re angry. You’ll feel an urgent need to act, to teach your child a lesson. But that’s your anger talking. It thinks this is an emergency. It almost never is, though. You can teach your child later, and it will be the lesson you actually want to teach. Your child isn’t going anywhere. You know where she lives.
Stop, Drop, Breathe
I know that in conscious parenting, it all comes back to ME first. What am I doing? How am I showing up? Seeing my daughter’s behavior as of late, I know she’s modeling a need to have more spaciousness. To have more compassion and understanding in making mistakes. To be more human. To have more loving tolerance and understanding.
Your children get angry too, so it’s a double gift to them to find constructive ways to deal with your anger: you not only don’t hurt them, you offer them a role model. Your child will certainly see you angry from time to time, and how you handle those situations teaches children a lot.
Early on, we taught our daughter to breathe. “I wish my parents had taught me that when I was young!” one of our friends said to us when they saw us encouraging our daughter to do this. “It would’ve helped me avoid so much anxiety and stress!”
Write It Down and Put It Up
I’m totally not perfect. I need reminders. We used to have the tenets of non-violence communication posted up on our kitchen wall and when we get to our next home, I’ll be writing down these tips for myself and my daughter to practice:
- When we’re angry, let’s dance it out!
- When we’re angry, let’s breathe.
- When we’re angry, let’s say what we need.
- When we’re angry, let’s give ourselves a hug.
What tips work for you when you’re “out of your mind” and in the thick of anger in parenting?