Between screaming toddlers, squabbling siblings, and saucy teens, keeping your cool can be tricky - unless you have a few anger management parenting hacks up your sleeve.
1. Recognize anger rising. “Everybody has their own unique physiological stress signs,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Maybe you clench your teeth and narrow your eyes. Maybe your arms stiffen at your sides and your fingers curl into fists. Not sure what your sign is? Ask your child. “They’ll always tell you. ‘Right before you get mad, mom, you do that weird thing with your eyes,’” says Borba.
Youngsters have their own anger signs, too. Maybe one child starts yanking at their hair and another child furrows their brow. “It’s almost the sign they’re going to use the rest of their life,” says Borba.
Once you’ve identified each other’s anger signs, come up with a nonverbal timeout signal to use the moment you feel anger rising. The signal gives you each permission to walk away and calm down before resuming the conversation.
2. Empathize. Avoid taking your child’s bad mood personally. Your child may have had a rough day at school. Maybe they did poorly on a test, got their feelings hurt, or perhaps they’re just tired and hungry after a busy day.
Give your kids time to decompress before peppering them with questions or demands. “If you can look at the world through your children’s eyes and really feel compassion and empathy for them, it’s going to shift everything in terms of how you approach different kinds of situations,” says child psychologist Dr. Vanessa LaPointe, author of Discipline Without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up.
3. Know your triggers. Family tensions generally run highest between 4 and 6pm. Often, you’re rushing to feed hungry, irritated kids, distracted by work issues, helping with homework, and running to get everyone off to extracurricular activities. Jot down times and circumstances when you’re most likely to lose your cool. Once you identify a pattern, plan for how you’ll address the stress and better regulate yourself in the future.
4. Press pause and breathe. Taking deep breaths is such a powerful way to self-soothe that even the Navy Seals use the technique, says Borba. “The moment the stress starts to come on, take a deep slow breath, inhale, hold it, and exhale it twice as long as you inhale. Do it a few times,” she instructs. “Exhaling twice as long as you inhale is the fastest way to get the relaxation response, and it instantly soothes you.”
5. Role model self-care. Adequate sleep, a nutritious diet, and regular exercise will help you better manage stressful situations. “The reality is that as a mother, father, or any kind of caregiver trying to grow up human beings, you are no good to them if you are lying on the ground gasping for air,” says LaPointe.
Invite your kids to join you in activities that help you manage stress to show them how to cool off when they’re upset, angry, or sad. For instance: “I’m going to do some yoga. That always helps me feel better. Want to try it?” or, “I had a hard day and need to get some fresh air. Do you want to go for a walk with me?”
Also, show your kids how you calm yourself in the midst of frustrating situations that you can’t immediately exit from. For example, if you’re stuck in traffic, turn on soft music, tell each other jokes or riddles, or play a game like ‘Would you rather?’ Not only are you maintaining calm in the car, you’re connecting with your family in a positive way, despite external annoyances. “Your kids watch you and they learn how to handle life by mirroring what you do,” explains Borba. “Unless your child learns how to self-regulate, their empathy goes down. The stress builds and then they’re in survival mode and can’t feel for another person.”
6. When you lose your cool. You lose it with your eight-year-old when you discover that they stuck chewing gum to their bedroom carpet - for the third time. You blow up at a driver who cuts you off in traffic in front of your kids. You and your spouse get into a heated debate at dinner. What now? “Even if you didn’t create the situation that led to the upset, to the meltdown, or the breakdown in the relationship, it’s always the parent’s job to fix it,” says LaPointe, who offers this recipe for repair:
“If you don’t close the communication circle, and you haven’t landed fully on the apology - the ‘we are okay’ part - and moving on with other things in life, kids will come up with their own catastrophic end,” says LaPointe. For example, a child might think: ‘Mom doesn’t love me anymore.’ By acknowledging the situation and doing the necessary repair work, kids learn how to manage inevitable conflict in their own relationships.
In the case of the driving incident, apologize afterward and explain your reaction to your kids, “Wow, I’m sorry I yelled! That guy really scared me. I thought we were going to get hit!” Chances are they’ll do that back to you: “I’m sorry I yelled at you, mom. I got a bad grade on my science test and that’s why I blew up.”
7. Need help? Unmanaged anger can seriously affect your health and relationships. Talk to your doctor if you need help. If you don’t get help, Borba warns, your kids may begin to believe that they’re somehow responsible for your anger, which can negatively affect their health, their level of empathy, and their overall resilience.
“There are no take backs when it comes to parenting,” says Borba. “Kids can’t interpret your anger, and so they hold it in and it can become deadly to your relationship and to their self-esteem.”
Christa is a nationally-published freelance writer and mom of two teenage sons.
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