No matter how chill you or your child is, at some point you’re going to get very angry about something your child has said or done. Dr. Nanika Coor explains how to manage everyday anger as a parent and how to know if your anger has become problematic.
There are so many ways in which being with children can fill your heart with a kind of glowing love that feels almost surreal. An unprompted “Thank you so much, Papa!” or, “I made this for you because you’re the best ever!” can really warm the cockles of your heart.
But there always be times when you find yourself clenching your teeth and thinking: “If I have to answer this question one. more. time. I’m going to throw this glass right at the wall!” Or your child whines to you about how they wish they were with their other parent right now “instead of YOU!” And all the sacrifices you’ve made for this tiny human flash through your mind as you hear yourself saying, “Yeah? Well GUESS WHAT?!” and things go downhill from there.
Today, we’re talking about your anger as a parent: what it is, how it works, how to regulate it, and how to know when it’s a problem for you and your children.
The mechanics of anger
While we all experience anger, it's important to actually define what it is we're talking about here.
Anger is an emotional state that can vary in duration, intensity, and frequency within a person and between people. It starts with physiological arousal and reactivity in response to any situation you perceive as aversive, threatening, or unfair. Outside of your conscious control, your nervous system automatically switches into survival mode of the “fight” variety.
This aroused state brings your hypervigilance online. You begin to see others and the world as threatening or hostile, which then increases your reactivity, generating a feedback loop. Your facial expression, body posture, the tone and volume of your voice, the words you use, and the actions you take help to communicate your anger to others.
Outside of your conscious control, your nervous system automatically switches into survival mode of the “fight” variety.
You can be in an angry state (state anger), or you might be particularly predisposed to becoming angry such that anger is a trait (trait anger) of yours. Evolutionarily, fight mode is adaptive and might have helped you (and therefore your future offspring) survive an attack by a predator or allowed you to establish dominance with your fellow mammals. In the modern world—and especially as a parent—you need to be able to moderate your anger in order to get your needs met in non-hurtful ways. If you struggle with emotional regulation your anger can become controlling, rejecting, or aggressive—verbally or physically.
The anger pathways of your brain can become so accustomed to firing that your reactive aggression happens almost instantaneously, which can feel like it’s coming out of nowhere for you and for those on the receiving end of it. Most importantly, your chronic anger can negatively affect your child’s emotions, increase their vulnerability to depression and anxiety, and set them on a path to developing trait anger themselves. Anger can also erode the relationship and the connection between you and your child that would motivate them to behave in less triggering ways and be more cooperative with you.
Regulating your anger
In the frenetic pace of everyday life with children, it’s easy to be blindsided by your own rising anger. On days when you're well-rested, well-fed, gotten some exercise, and you've had your own emotional cup refilled, many of your child’s challenging behaviors are barely a blip on your radar. But when you’re feeling more depleted and less well-resourced, the same challenging behaviors can send your anger meter through the roof.
Set yourself up for success with proactive coping strategies for your anger. These strategies lay the foundation for resilience under parental stress, allowing you to adapt to stressful parent-child situations without reactively lashing out, rejecting your child, or shutting down. Making sure you have social support, that you’re taking care of your health and well-being, and engaging in a regular mindfulness practice are ongoing ways to shore up your parental resilience.
But what should you do if you find yourself smack dab in the middle of an anger surge?
4 in-the-moment coping strategies
Get familiar with your body sensations
You won’t be able to manage anger if you don’t realize it's there. Tune into your body when you notice you are even mildly frustrated. Be curious: what body sensations are letting you know it’s frustration specifically? Do your muscles tense, does your body temperature rise, does your pulse quicken? These are your body's anger alerts.
Cultivate your "neutral narrator"
When you’re angry, it’s nearly impossible to make logical decisions, because your automatic self-protective behaviors override your rational thinking. Create a neutral, nonjudgmental, bird's-eye-view voice in your mind that says to you, “Your shoulders are getting tight. You’re feeling angry that Jane is refusing to get out of the bathtub. You’re telling yourself that she's ungrateful. That she's unappreciative of the fun things you did with her today.”
The ability to simply notice and radically accept what your body is experiencing and the thoughts you’re having, and then deliberately formulate words in your head, means that you're now able to make an intentional response.
Reduce your arousal with self-calming strategies
Now that you can think: remind yourself to slow down your breathing, which down-regulates your nervous system. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and exhale for 8 counts or longer. You’ve now regained even more control of yourself.
Make an intentional decision
Make a choice that does the least harm to your child’s mind, body, self-esteem, and self-worth. That could be expressing your feelings verbally, taking a break, setting limits, letting something go, asserting your needs, or even asking for help—as long as they're all done in ways that are respectful of your child and yourself.
When your anger is a problem
Coping strategies for managing the everyday anger that arises in response to typical conflicts can help you in challenging moments. But when your anger is chronic, intense, and long-lasting, your anger may be problematic. You might be overly reactive, resistant, defensive, or withdrawn. Underneath the anger is often fear about not being good enough as a parent or person, worries about your child’s future, or taking your child’s developmentally appropriate behavior personally.
Parents who avoid showing or feeling vulnerability—such as disappointment, sadness, shame, or hurt—may struggle with anger. Perhaps your own parents had maladaptive ways of dealing with their own anger and used punitive discipline like shaming, hitting, yelling, and withdrawing love and affection.
Harsh parenting practices can be passed down from one generation to the next through the modeling of behavior. Projecting your old pain on your kids damages your relationship with them and sets the stage for intergenerational trauma.
Underneath the anger is often fear about not being good enough as a parent or person.
There’s no avoiding becoming angry when you’re raising children. With their still-developing brains, they are apt to act in ill-advised, impulsive, or socially inappropriate ways that trigger the anger of their adults. Taking good care of yourself emotionally and physically, using in-the-moment coping strategies, and beefing up your social support can help.
When you do blow up, repair your relationship with your child, and make an intentional plan for next time. If you notice you’re becoming intensely critical, sarcastic, rigid, and impatient, seek help from a licensed therapist. It may be that what’s fueling your anger are unresolved issues from harsh discipline or misattuned parenting in your own childhood.
The good news is that you don't have to pass those issues along to your own children: you've got the power to break the cycle.