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Turning Anger into a Peaceful Heart

Elaine had three children, ages two, four, and seven, and she worked full-time as a computer programmer for a large brokerage company. She had been meeting weekly with Rick for several months, talking about her marriage with Dennis, before she felt comfortable enough to tell her deepest, darkest secret. Normally self-controlled and forthright, her voice was sad and hesitant: Sometimes I get pretty mad at my kids. Like yesterday. I was making lunches for day care, and running late. I heard Leo and Nick start screaming at each other. Dennis had already taken Ariana to school, so I go into the living room and they're fighting over some stupid toy and Leo shoves his little brother and he falls and hits his head on the floor. I pick up Nick and just start yelling at Leo. He looks scared, but I keep yelling anyway - I'm so tired of him pushing his brother around. He started crying and I stopped yelling. I got a little calmer and we talked about what had happened and how he couldn't hit or shove his brother. It was okay, but I felt upset for a long time afterward. The person I was most mad at for the rest of the day was me.

Let's be realistic: its completely normal to get angry with your children. Or with your partner, the in-laws, the staff at preschool - or yourself. Studies have found that the more children a woman has, the more time she spends with them or doing housework, or the more hassles she has with child care or her kids, the more angry she's likely to be. There's no need to feel guilty about anger itself. The real question is, what can you do about it?

On the one hand, anger is a healthy emotion. It shines a bright light on things that should be different - like a child's incessant whining, a partner's broken agreements, or some stupid workplace policy that keeps you from your kids - and energizes you to try to change them. Bottling up anger numbs your other feelings as well, and it wears on your health. Acting like you are not mad when you really are is inauthentic and teaches kids to put on a false face themselves - not a good lesson.

On the other hand, anger takes you on an emotional roller coaster that stresses your body and can leave you feeling bad for hours. And no other emotion has such an impact on relationships. When Mom or Dad gets mad, that's scary and often overwhelming for kids since their parents are so big, powerful, and important. In a marriage, frequent anger is very wounding; after a while, anyone would start wanting to step back from a person who's mad a lot of the time. There's a saying that getting angry with someone is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Fortunately, there's a healthy middle path for a mom between tight-lipped self-censoring and boiling-over rage. In this section, we'll be looking at a number of ways to work with anger wisely, inside your own mind.

Stop Things from Building Up
We usually get mad in two stages. First there's the priming: tension, frustration, bodily discomfort, fatigue, gripes, etc., mount up like a growing pile of dynamite. Then comes the firecracker that sets it all off: I got home from a hard day at work, the little one was getting a cold, her big brother was whiny and clingy, and the phone kept ringing. Then the garbage disposal stopped working and the sink wouldn't empty. That was the last straw. It's stupid but I jabbed the drain over and over with the end of a wooden spoon, I was so mad!

During the priming phase, try to defuse things before there's a blowup. Here are a few ideas.

Dont overgive. For example, don't agree to chair the annual fund-raiser at the preschool when you don't really want to and then resent it later. One trick is to imagine asking your future self, the one who will be stuck with the work, how she will feel and what she would like you to do. Another is to adopt the blanket policy of never agreeing to anything until you've had some time to think it over.

Blow off steam as you go along. Try not to accumulate a residue of irritation from individual interactions. Let's say you've just had the usual struggle to wash your daughter's hair. Before shifting gears into the next thing, you could rinse your face with warm water, do something loud and goofy with your child, or shake your arms and exhale vigorously.

Take a break before you get to the breaking point. Most people become quite frayed by the time they've been alone with a young child for three or four hours. Make it a serious priority to find some way, any way, to give yourself a break before your pot boils over. Maybe you need to arrange a regular get-together with another mom, schedule some child care in the middle of the day, or use the video babysitter for half an hour.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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