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Turning Anger into a Peaceful Heart

Understand What's Making You Angry When you're mad, there's typically more to the story than just anger. Let's say it's Wednesday after work, you're in the store with your three-year-old son, and all you want to do is get home, make some dinner, and relax. But he wants some candy, you say no, and he throws a major tantrum. People are staring, you feel mortified, somehow you get him out of the store and into your car, and then you really yell at him. In that moment, the intensity of your anger is at least a six or seven on a ten-point scale.

But now let's change some of the elements of the situation. Suppose it's a Saturday morning instead and you're feeling rested and relaxed. How intense do you think your anger would be in that case? Probably less: maybe one to three on the anger scale. Or suppose that you're at home, not out at the store, when he throws his tantrum; no one is watching you and you don't have to care what anyone is thinking. How angry do you think you'd be then? Again, probably less. Fatigue and embarrassment amplified your feelings by five or so points that had nothing to do with the actual seriousness of your son's misbehavior. And when you understand the "amplifiers" in your life, suddenly you're able to be a lot less mad.

Sorting out the various factors involved lets you see how much a situation is actually worth getting mad about. If it's really just a "one" or a "two," feeling any angrier than that is needless aggravation. This sorting also helps you protect your children or partner from getting blasted about things that don't have anything to do with them: it's not their fault that a coworker was a pain in the neck or you got stuck at the house waiting for a phone company guy who never showed up.

Let's see how to deal with common factors that add topspin to a mothers anger.

If you think your child is manipulating you. Manipulation involves deception, and most children below the age of seven or so have not yet developed the cognitive abilities required to be deliberately deceptive. Your child just wants what he wants, and you happen to be in the way. In the normal course of development, he needs to try different ways of getting what he wants in order to find out what works. When you hold your ground and say no, he gets a little lesson that he has to find a different want, or a better way of getting it. Of course, it could take dozens or even hundreds of repetitions before the lesson sinks in; in that case, the situation is definitely tiresome, but it's not manipulation.

If you see something in your child that you don't like in yourself. One of Rick's clients, Wanda, had grown up in a strict and traditional home, and she was always getting into trouble as a little girl for her tomboy ways. Over time, she learned to push down her more aggressive and independent parts and act like a highly "feminine" girl. Then, years later, she had a daughter herself. To her dismay, Tawny wanted to run around with the boys, yelling and building forts and sword fighting. She was blunt and outspoken with other kids, and had no interest in acting nicey-nicey just to get along. Wanda often felt deeply embarrassed by her daughter. She told Rick: Part of me is rooting for Tawny, but another part is horrified, and it says a girl is just not supposed to act like that! In a way, I keep waiting for some big punishment to come down on her, like people yelling at her. Even though it never happens, it keeps making me nervous. So I'm always after her to be different. It's like I'm afraid of getting punished when she acts that way.

By becoming more aware of the sources of her reactions to Tawny, Wanda was able to address Tawny's misbehavior for what it was without the added layer of being upset about her daughter's tomboyishness. She also remembered that it had upset her to have grown-ups angry with her when she was a kid, so it wasn't going to be any good for Tawny, either. When Tawny was pushy or too wild, what worked for Wanda was compassionate firmness, saturated in love for the wonderful qualities in her high-spirited daughter.

If you're prickly about any challenge to your authority. You are the ultimate authority until your child is eighteen, and he needs to know that. If you feel confident and matter-of-fact about your authority, you'll usually be able to exercise it without having to make a big deal about it. It sounds backwards, but reminding yourself deep down that you have much more power than your child, and that you have plenty of ways to make it stick, makes it less necessary for you to prove it. It's also healthy for a child to challenge his parents periodically in order to clarify the limits of his autonomy. Excess anger on a parent's part about that natural process slows down a young child's learning, and it often makes an older child or adolescent particularly oppositional.

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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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