Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person
and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose,
and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
This Aristotle quote is a favorite of mine, and I have often kept it in the back of my head when trying to teach my children the concepts of emotional intelligence. Like so many things about parenting (or life, in general), words are easy, but action is so much harder.
I don’t think of myself as an angry person. Generally, I feel as though I am accommodating and understanding and very empathetic. I also have noticed that I can have a hairpin trigger; on occasion my anger has surprised and, frankly, disturbed me.
I was saying to one of my sisters-in-law the other day that the aspect of parenting that most surprised me was how exposed your triggers become. Once I became a mother I began to see that there were aspects of my own childhood that I never considered to be painful or upsetting but which are suddenly scratched raw by something seemingly inconsequential that my children or husband does.
My kids were out of school for a few days the other week. By day three I found myself physically and emotionally exhausted; my patience was worn thin and I was so angry so often that both my children and I had our share of crying by the end of the day. After the kids finally went to bed, I managed to have an argument with my husband where I had such intense anger that I shocked myself (and perhaps, him as well).
Where was all of this anger coming from? Why would I get so unreasonably mad at a 4-year old over something that was completely normal for a 4-year old to do? Yes, raising twins can be exceptionally difficult at times and yes, I am aware of my low tolerance for chaos and noise, and yes, my daughter is in an exceptionally difficult “testing” phase, but the fact that she wouldn’t stop needling me while I tried for the 10th time to explain the rules of a game to her whining brother shouldn’t cause me to explode. It really shouldn’t. But it did. And I know that there is more to it than just my being tired or overwhelmed. I know this because the amount of anger I felt was disproportionate to the act committed.
So, I lay in bed this morning and I thought about my pent up anger. What am I angry about? It’s certainly not that my daughter kept interrupting me. What exactly was happening? I decided to dissect it.
- I asked her a few times to please wait until I was done, but I wasn’t being listened to (HUGE trigger for me from childhood).
- I was being pulled in two directions at once as I was trying to talk to our son, and was being distracted by our daughter who also wanted my attention. Thus, I wasn’t able to pay attention to either of them properly (being needed in two places, not able to give either my full attention for me equals not being able to do something well. This is a HUGE childhood issue for me. Interestingly, I was also triggered because by not being able to pay attention to either of them fully in that moment, I felt I wasn’t listening to them which brings up my own issues! I know….crazy).
- Having effective methods for handling my children’s behaviors has become a protective method I developed. The sense of satisfaction and reassurance I feel when I say or do something and they respond favorably calms me and makes me feel in control. When they don’t respond to my bag of tricks I feel lost and as if I am free falling (loss of control, HUGE childhood issue).
- I am sensing a pattern here.
- The combination of these three things increases my stress level greatly and I become flooded. When I’m flooded, I can’t think clearly and I am primarily thinking with my primitive brain. I simply react to make the stress stop. I act like an angry child. I threaten, I raise my voice, I slam a door, I throw something. Then I collapse in tears because I know this is not how I want to be. I apologize, I attempt to explain without blaming them, I ask for forgiveness and always, always receive it.
- I start again to try and do things better.
- The process starts all over.
The process starts all over again because I still have those triggers. Usually I do handle myself better, but even one time of losing it is one time too many. How do I stop the triggers from controlling me? How do I keep my patience and my calm?
When Mommy Needs A Time Out
I actually don’t believe in time outs; but I do think everyone, grownups included, needs to cool down on occasion. Here are some of the things I use to keep my sense of calm. It takes a lot of practice and I believe calming methods need to become part of an every day ritual, like meditation – especially if you are as tightly wound as I am. Many of these ideas I am teaching to my own children as the reality is, we have the exact same emotions our children do – we just have had more years of practice regulating them.
Know Your Triggers.
Dissecting your anger as I did in this instance is so helpful in understanding where your triggers are. Once you know your triggers, you can help yourself by either not putting yourself in those situations or asking for help if you can’t avoid them. If you can’t figure your triggers out yourself, ask someone you trust or a therapist for help.
Express Your Emotions.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to narrate your feelings. Way before you lose control, check in with yourself. Notice if you are getting agitated, anxious, short tempered. Verbalize this – even with your children. “Mommy is getting really frustrated right now. I feel it in my stomach, it’s getting tight. I am feeling hot, that means that I am feeling mad”. This isn’t a warning to your kids, you are simply offering this information in a descriptive tone. Just giving voice to your feelings begins to relieve some of the tension. It also helps your children begin to be able to notice where anger resides in their bodies and to then be able to express their anger in a more acceptable way.
This is an especially effective method if you get overly anxious (as I do), but it works any time your brain is flooded. Any type of deep breathing is good medicine. However, if you can learn the 6 second method it can be exponentially more helpful. Putting one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest, fill your belly in the first 3 seconds (letting your stomach expand), then your chest in the last 3 seconds. When you exhale, do it through your mouth and use the 6 second rule again: release the air first from your upper chest in the first 3 seconds, and then the air from your belly in the next 3 seconds. It’s actually the out breath that regulates your brain when you are flooded and you can sense your body calming itself as you breathe out. Begin teaching your children deep breathing as a way to calm down as early on as possible. My kids use it regularly.
Know Your Limits.
My tolerance level is pretty high. Both for pain and for stress. I can take a lot. This is a good thing in many ways, but it also works against me because if I am not paying attention I don’t notice that I am getting overloaded until it is just too late. I keep trying to handle the situation on my own, getting more and more stressed, and then I explode. However, when I am centered and paying attention to me (and not just to everyone else) I will notice that I am getting anxious or that a situation is going to go badly soon and I can call in the reinforcements or I can simply remove myself for a moment to collect my thoughts. Being a mom of twins means needing to keep 50 plates spinning at once, but don’t pride yourself on being able to do it all – ask for help before you become a weeping, frustrated mess.
Recharge Your Batteries.
I know I am way more patient and way better at keeping my triggers in check when I have had enough sleep and have eaten well that day and have had a little time to myself. I know, you are thinking, “Yeah, I remember those days. That was before I had children!” So if you can’t get all of those things in (I know I can’t) then find at least one thing that helps keep your batteries charged up. I make sure to get a little down time during the day where I am alone and no one needs anything from me. It’s a priority that I’ve set and I make sacrifices in other areas to get that. I would happily trade it for 10 hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep; alas, I think it may be years before I get that. Find your daily thing. Maybe it’s catching up on the phone with a friend, a therapy appointment, exercise, a quick cat nap…whatever it is that makes you feel like your best self that day, DO IT. Your family will thank you.
We will all lose our tempers and have moments when we are far from our best selves. For me, the key is to own those transgressions. I always talk to my children afterwards and explain that grownups make mistakes sometimes and that it’s not ok for anyone to yell at them or to make them feel sad. If it happens, I tell them, the person needs to apologize. I know that when our son says to me “calm down, mommy” that he feels safe expressing himself and entitled to ask me to act in a better manner. I am not a perfect parent, but every day my children teach me how to be a better one.
What about you? Do you ever lose it? What works best for you when you feel like your emotions are getting the best of you? I’d love to know your advice!