Q: I need some help in curbing my anger towards my kids or, at least, learning what’s acceptable and what’s out of line. I blame one of my kids a lot, because he can’t seem to do anything right. He’s never ready on time, he doesn’t do his chores, or pick up his room, he’s not doing well in school, he’s always fighting with his sister and brother, and, basically, nothing seems to get through to him. I yell (even scream) at them at least once a day, probably a lot more. But yelling just seems to get me even more angry. I can easily fly into a rage over my kids’ behavior. I hate to get angry with them in public; it’s like everyone seeing you at your worst, and yet it happens more than I’d like. I’m the first to judge other parents who lose their temper in the grocery store, on the playground, or at a public function, when making a scene only makes them look foolish. Some days I wonder where all my anger is coming from! Any advice or useful information would be great.

A: It certainly sounds as though your children trigger some old wounds that haven’t yet healed. Did your parents yell frequently? When you were a child, did you feel like you couldn’t do anything right? Was anger something you witnessed often as a child? Or perhaps you were never allowed to express your emotions, anger in particular, and now the floodgates have opened. From what you’ve said, you’re feeling out of control much of the time, unable to disengage and use connective communication with your children. I wonder if your son reminds you of anyone, thus triggering you in ways different from your other two children. 

Anger is the universal “Achilles’ heel” of parents. It’s a normal emotion and all parents feel it at times, especially when their child does something the parent perceives as wrong. Low levels of it are quite consistent with the range of emotions we experience in life. Yet what about the deeper level of anger, the “prehistoric” rage, the kind that wells up not just in an occasional moment of frustration, but often, with increasing ferocity? Of course, parents worry about becoming abusive, yet anger is as much a part of parenting as wet diapers or spilled milk. Understanding the types of situations that trigger you, both learning a few skills to master your temper, as well as committing to uncovering the source of your anger, will make a difference in your tolerance level — and your child’s sense of self-worth.

Children are, by nature, childish, thus what’s normal behavior for them can drive their parents to the edge. They are inherently noisy, messy, demanding, and self-centered. That’s a given. The problem arises when your tolerance level for this behavior is inconsistent. Many parents say they might punish something their child does one day, and overlook the same behavior the next five times. One mom told me she does better staying calm with her children on the days she works outside the home, making a special effort when she gets home. She feels her “mommy abuse” builds up on the days she stays home, noticing she loses her temper more frequently. This isn’t unusual, as many stay-at-home parents are more irritable and easily provoked, feeling isolated and physically run-down, lacking social supports, and sometimes feeling stuck. If they didn’t envision parenting to be so challenging, or if they hadn’t expected to be feeling this way at this stage in their lives, their children can become a source of resentment.

When parents are asked to share their hot triggers, they typically provide a list, making family life mimic a battle zone! There’s nothing trivial about this everyday madness, nor are parents helpless to deal with it. Beginning with accepting that your child has a right to want something, and has a right to be upset when he can’t have it, goes a long way toward taming meltdowns — his and yours! “Non-hurtful” anger, or frustration, is not usually harmful to children. In fact, according to one child psychologist, parents who show mild to moderate levels of anger are modeling fairly positive ways to express frustration at the inevitable disappointments in life. We can all agree that it’s not healthy, physically or mentally, to repress those feelings.

However, when parents express overt aggression towards their children — through name-calling, emotional abuse, demeaning comments — that becomes hurtful and damaging to a child’s sense of self-worth. We cross the line when we blame the child rather than the actions, insisting he can’t do anything right, or that he’s stupid, selfish, mean, or inherently at fault. These denigrating comments become the hallmark of emotional and psychological abuse. Often, the more a parent yells, the more angry, not less so, she becomes. It can end up being a chronically escalating cycle of rage, with a volatile, out-of-control environment. This often happens with parents who are lacking confidence in their ability to be good parents. Their ideal vision of how they imagined themselves as parents is severely challenged.

Regardless of what it is that children actually do to infuriate their parents, most experts contend that adults cause their own anger. The portal to anger is your own thoughts and expectations, turning your stress into an outburst. For example, if you believe your child is intentionally doing this TO you, is intentionally trying to harm or upset you, or is exacting revenge, that belief becomes more distressing than the behavior itself. If your expectations for each child are set too high, are unrealistic or not set for success, your child can fail, leading to more parental anger. Often, too much nagging and lecturing leads to children being uncooperative. They simply can’t live up to the unrealistic expectations, believing they’re not good enough.

Nancy Samalin, a parenting author, says: “One of the biggest mistakes parents make in handling anger is thinking there are only two ways to respond: either putting one’s foot down or being a wimp. But there’s a middle ground that allows you to acknowledge your child’s feelings and release your own frustration.”

Whenever you’re unable to disengage from the situation, with your anger quickly escalating, that’s your signal that your child has triggered you in some way that’s more about you than about him. If you consider addressing your own unfinished work as a gift that will keep on giving, with lasting benefits to your children and to yourself, this will shape a closer connection with them. Reaching a better understanding of the source of your anger, whenever it’s more than mild to moderate frustration, will eventually help you communicate more calmly and effectively with your children, as well as other family members. Consider any irrational self-talk — “I’m a bad parent,” or “My children shouldn’t do this, they should know better,” or “Why is he always doing this to me?” — as your cue that your expectations are not realistic. Ask yourself what provoked you, then dig down to determine the real trigger.

Be sure to make time for yourself. Breathing is important, not to be overlooked. Keep in mind that, whenever you don’t like your reaction to your child in a particular situation, your beliefs are the offender, not your emotions nor your child. When you take your child’s behavior personally, you’re unable to be objective, to respond effectively. Accept responsibility for the intensity and weight of your anger, letting it guide you to deeper self-awareness.

“How much more precious is a little humanity than all the rules in the world.” — Jean Piaget