Monday, August 13, 2012

Parenting when you're angry: Keep Cool

Picture Source: Shutterstock
One of the biggest problems I've had disciplining my kids is letting them see I'm angry. And from talking with many parents over the years, I know I'm not alone. It is only natural to lose your temper and yell when mad, right?

The problem is obvious. We all see it. When we yell, other's yell back. That is also natural.

So if you yell, the kids yell. Or otherwise show you they are angry. It can get pretty ugly, right?

One of the best things I ever did when I was losing my temper and my husband wasn't around to give me a reprieve: I put myself in Time Out. I went to my room, closed the door, and sat on my bed. The kids (who had been fighting with each other) worked together outside my room, talking about what was happening nicely and quietly with each other. They bonded instead of fighting. They were a little scared and very confused. I got some peace and quiet while they worked through their problem. It was wonderful. I only did that once or twice, I'm not sure why I didn't do it more often.'

Everyone gets angry. That is okay. It is human and natural. How we react to the anger and what we do about it is what makes a difference. Yelling, hitting, belittling, blaming others, or otherwise mismanaging anger can have devastating consequences and generally makes the situation worse. No one can think when angry, and showing anger typically makes the others involved angry.

So what can we do to keep situations under control without showing anger?

  • Time Out. This is typically given to the child in trouble, but certain circumstances might help if everyone gets a time out, as above.  Time away from talking, glaring, or otherwise communicating can give everyone time to simply calm down.
  • Change the situation. If appropriate, changing the activity is a simple way to get everyone in a better mood.
  • Take deep breaths. Exaggerate the deep breathing. This physiologically helps your mood and gives you time to sort your thoughts, and also shows the kids that you are trying to manage your anger. This modeling can help them to remember to take deep breaths when they are angry too.
  • Count. This draws attention to the problem once kids realize that you count when they need to change choices and gives everyone time to problem solve.
  • Take turns. If you have someone else who can take over (spouse, parent, friend) when you are losing control, find a way to ask for help. My husband and I would relieve each other a lot when the kids were younger. Sometimes simply having the change of person would calm the child. Because this parent was not already angry with the situation, they were better able come up with a solution.
  • Lead by example. Choose words carefully. Don't hit. Don't name call. Don't blame. Keep voice level neutral. Speak in a calming voice. Avoid gestures or facial expressions that show anger or distain. Take deep breaths to "think." Show your child how to handle bad situations without poor behavior.
  • Get their attention first before giving directions. Get on eye level with your child. Ask that they look at you when talking. Put a gentle hand on their shoulder. Don't yell for attention, but calmly wait a few seconds for it before speaking. Sometimes a whisper gets attention better than a yell.
  • Use humor if appropriate. This DOES NOT mean to make fun of your child. That is horribly damaging to self esteem. It means to try something funny to get your child's attention. 

Make a baby doll "talk" about what is going to happen next: "I'm going to splash in the bath." or "Look at me brush my teeth."
Put pajama pants on your head and ask the child to show you what you're doing wrong. They just might get dressed to show you!
Come up with a silly stress dance to shake out the worries and stress. 

  • Think about the root of the problem. When kids act out it often isn't just because of the action itself. Are they tired or hungry? In need of attention? Sad about a loss? Being bullied? Afraid of failure? Or is their behavior really okay but you are stressed and sleep deprived and over reacting? Addressing the root problem will typically help the day to day issues.
  • Talk through your thoughts out loud. "Those words you just said hurt my feelings. I am now sad." If you are frustrated at another person when your kids are around, model good behavior of handling a negative situation without yelling or fighting. 
  • Smile. It really works. Smiling can actually change your mood and relieves stress, as described by Karen Kleiman in this article.
  • Apologize if you make a mistake. It is okay for a parent to admit fault in a situation. Saying something as simple as "I'm sorry I yelled. I was very disappointed in your choice but I should not have yelled and lost my temper." This will earn respect from your kids and teach them that they can apologize when they are wrong too!
  • Keep a journal. This often can help us see our own situation more clearly. What triggers our anger and what can we do? It is easier to think about this when we aren't mad and come up with a plan for the next time the situation arises.
  • Family meetings are a great way to talk about behavior in a non-threatening manner and at a time that everyone is in a good mood. You can discuss situations that have happened and ask kids what they think they could have said or done differently to change the outcome. (One rule with this: they can only change themselves, no one else!) Roll play situations that come up frequently, such as sharing toys or getting a chore done. Let them figure out good ways to handle common problems, don't give answers. Talking about what's happening the following week, such as a dentist appointment and soccer practice, helps kids get a perspective and internally plan. 
  • Make a list of appropriate things to do when angry. 
The list might include many options, such as: Yell into a pillow. Squeeze a stress ball. Pray. Deep breaths. Whatever comes to mind that might help.
Keeping the list in an easily accessed area can help older kids and parents find ways out of their anger. (It's hard to think when angry, so the list really does help!)
  • Choose words carefully. Starting sentences with "I feel" instead of "You" are less hurtful. "I feel sad when I see toys on the floor when no one is playing with them because they weren't put away," instead of "You left your toys out again and that makes me sad." Hear the difference? Same general point, but much less inflammatory and judgmental.
  • And never forget prevention of problems! Routines are important, especially eating regularly and sleeping adequately (kids and parents). Tired, sick, and hungry is a recipe for disaster! Praise the positives. It is easy to see problems, but be sure to give kudos when due, even for the small stuff. Never underestimate the power of praise and attention!


  1. I love your tips and completely agree and use them myself! I shuffle through the above list of powerful and helpful options when my anger starts to bubble up so I don't 'lose it'. I've coined 4 "M-POWERED PARENTING STYLES" which encompass many of your tips and help me work through the options. My parenting styles include 1) BRAINY PARENTING--thinking it through and finding the source of my anger so I can take steps to change it; 2) DISCIPLINED PARENTING--where I will also take a Time Out for myself until my 'dark cloud' has passed, 3) HEARTFELT PARENTING--acknowledging my negative feelings to myself, talking about them with my kids, and, if needed, saying I'm sorry if I reacted harshly; and 4) PLAYFUL PARENTING--so if all else fails, I will resort to silly voices, characters, games, instant songs, etc. to lighten the mood and help us all escape the grouchiness and anger.

    While anger is an accepted and natural part of our human experience, it sure feels better to have a handle on it, rather than letting it take over. Great advice for your readers!!

    Dr. Michelle
    Your Concierge Child Psychologist

    1. Thank you for sharing your 4 M-Powered Parenting Styles. It sounds very similar to what I recommend to parents. Always easier to say than do, but no one said parenting would be easy. Rewarding, wonderful, and more positives than negatives, but not easy!