Losing Your Cool with Your Kids

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An interview with Ruth Beaglehole, MA 

I admit it.  There are times when the behavior of my deeply loved little boy triggers my deeply felt feelings of anger.  I mean, primordial deep.  He has an ability to get to me on levels I did not know existed.  To learn more about this totally normal power our beautiful children have over us, I turned to Ruth Beaglehole, an expert on parental anger. — Laurel Moglen, TMC, Managing Web Editor

What kind of anger are we talking about?

The kind of anger we’re addressing is the type of deep anger that can happen every day – but not the kind of anger when parents get out of control and do serious damage to their children — that would be abuse.

Many of us grew up learning when we’re angry it’s someone else’s fault. In the philosophy of nonviolent parenting, all anger is an expression of unmet needs. When we are angry we are longing for one or more of our core basic human needs to be met. We may want connection, support, understanding, and cooperation. We may want safety and protection. Anger is a complex feeling. It includes hurt, sadness, fear, loneliness, and many other feelings.

What causes the deep anger to happen?

Parenting is stressful! Being present for children and being totally patient all the time is so difficult, as well as an unrealistic expectation of oneself as a parent.

Why can we feel so angry? Children require a huge amount of support and understanding. There’s having the calmness inside to resolve the myriad of little frustrations, answering what seem to be endless questions, giving empathy and understanding to opinions when they are different from our own, supporting our children with limits – knowing the goal is not unquestioning obedience but rather processing and teaching. Raising children can be time consuming and exhausting. All of this combined with the day to day stressors we bring to our parenting – tiredness, problems big and small, our feelings and our needs, can create the unsteady foundation on which anger grows.

That is not all! In addition to these challenges, we bring our own childhood histories and the modeling we had from the significant adults in our lives! How was the handling of big feelings such as anger and rage modeled for us? Did we grow up around the suppression of these feelings, the explosion of these feelings or did we see our parents successfully model the resolution of big feelings? What did it feel like for us to be around these feelings? What have we learned to do with our rage? Is it healthy for us or is it eating us up? One of the most important aspects of being a conscious parent is the act of reflecting on what happened to us as children, making sense of our life experiences. As Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell present in their book, “Parenting from the Inside Out”, it is not whether we had a “good” childhood or a “bad” childhood that is the determining factor in our ability to form a close attachment to our children, rather it is the ability to reflect and make sense of our own childhoods that is the most important factor. Of course, this is not an easy process. Talking with one’s partner or friends, being part of a parent support group, seeing a therapist, and journaling — these are only some of the many ways to reflect.

What are tips to help parents control their anger when they are “in the moment” of feeling furious and ready to blow?

• Regulate! Options to achieve this are: breath deeply as many times as it takes to let the angry feelings go, wash your face, do 5 jumping jacks, or walk away for a minute. If you walk away, be sure to tell your child, “I need a moment alone to take care of my big feelings right now. I will be right back.”

• Give yourself some empathy. You can even say to yourself, “I know this has made me really mad. It’s okay for me to have this feeling. I can get through this. I will come back to my feelings later.”

• Move your thoughts to a place of reflection, rather than blame.

• Give your child empathy. You can say, “I can imagine that was really scary to see me so angry. Are you okay? How are you feeling right now?”

• Put into words what your needs are and what the many feelings under the anger are. For example, “I am feeling sad, frustrated, disappointed. I want the house organized, to have your toys ready for you when you next want to play with them.”

• When you have a moment to yourself, return to the anger and do some self-reflection. What about my child’s behavior triggered my anger? Why did I have such a deep reaction?

How can parents best heal any damage caused after going a little too far with their words or actions?

Siegel and Hartzell describe a process called “repairing the rupture.” It begins by carefully reflecting on what happened at the time. Why did I (the parent) get so triggered by what happened? Did it take me back to my own relationships when I was a child? Why did I lose connection with both myself and with my child? What can I say to my child that will help them understand what happened, without judgment, in the language of feelings and needs? What might my child have felt seeing their parent in a state of dysregulation, or out-of-control emotional response? Imaging the child’s feelings and needs and putting them into words can bring the parent and child into a place of deeper connection. This is not as simple as saying “sorry” – it is a deeper process of ownership for one’s feelings, needs, and hurtful strategies that parents use to express themselves — and how those strategies made the child feel.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

All of this may seem like a lot to know and to practice, and it is. It is a mindful, daily practice of loving ourselves and our children well. Like any other practice we become more facile over time. It’s helpful to remember that our children do replicate what is modeled for them, and this is a valuable lesson of childhood – to understand and know how to love themselves and others through the emotion of anger.

Ruth Beaglehole, MA is the executive director of The Echo Center (formerly known as the Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting), has spent her life considering the needs of children, seeking support and nurturing for children as full human beings, using the principles of respect, healing and connection. Ruth’s professional journey parallels her personal journey and has given her the empathy, courage and dedication that has fueled her groundbreaking work; creating a new paradigm of unconditional parenting that is the soul of The Echo Center.

Posted in: Expert Advice, Emotions, Modern Parenting