Managing Anger in Your Family
"Never let Mommy brush your hair when she's mad at Daddy."
At Putnam Elementary in Minneapolis, the staff were concerned about the number of suspensions for defiant behavior, and decided to take action. They were not going to tolerate more disruption, but instead wanted to train the students and themselves to handle confrontations more effectively. They realized they had to begin with themselves.
One teacher pledged to control her voice when she got angry. Another vowed to listen carefully to every child who came up to her in the morning. A clerk decided to try to change physical posturing that could be intimidating to the children. A third-grade teacher promised to try to keep her voice low and calm when she was challenged by a child. These simple goals, along with a lot of hard work, cut the number of suspensions from 300, two years previously, to 72!
Learning to express strong emotions, like anger and frustration, respectfully and selectively is learned behavior. You don't have to be a victim of your emotions. You can choose your response. You don't have to react. And as you make those choices, your children are watching and listening. You are their role model, teaching them with your words and actions what adults do when faced with a rush of powerful emotions.
Recognizing the Instinctual Responses
Learning to recognize when you're "reacting" rather than thinking is the first step toward choosing a different response. There are four common instinctual reactions. Think about which ones are most typical for you and your child. What do you do when you get upset and you're not thinking?
When you feel threatened, you might find yourself attacking right back. You want to smack someone or something! Even when you're able to quell the urge to physically strike out, you may let loose words that escalate into full-fledged name calling or a shouting match.
The opposite of striking back is giving in. Exhaustion drives you. You cannot bear to deal with another angry outburst, so you give in, or you let your child off the hook. The trouble with giving in is that later you feel as if you've been had. Your child just keeps pushing, asking for more as he tries to find out where the limit is. Resentment grows until ultimately you have taken more than you can bear. That's when you find yourself moving from giving in to striking back.
Sometimes when that rush of adrenaline hits, you literally shut down. Flooded with emotion, it's as though you were a deer caught in the glare of headlights, unable to respond or perform. You can't think. You feel helpless. Your greatest fear is that there is nothing you can do to make things better.
The fourth instinctual reaction is to throw up your hands and emotionally break off your relationship with your child. You might say, "I just can't deal with you!" "I don't want to be with you!" or "Maybe you should find a different parent or family!" It could be hours or days of silence. No matter whether the break off is verbal or silent, to your child the message is clear: I don't like you. I don't want anything to do with you. I can't think of anything about you I ever liked. I wish to sever this relationship.
These instinctual reactions tear apart relationships. They bring up a host of hurt feelings, leaving you feeling lousy and your child feeling angry and resentful. The emotional costs are great. Rather than finding a way to work together, you're pushed apart. Fortunately, you can learn to stop reacting and instead respond deliberately, with careful and full consideration of the situation.
We can decide even in those difficult moments to choose responses that connect us with our kids instead of disconnect us. These responses allow us to step back, collect our wits, and see the situation more objectively and sensitively. Our goal isn't to suppress, muffle, stuff, deny, or bury our feelings, but to express them more selectively. As we do it, we are teaching our kids how to express their strong emotions respectfully and how to manage their intensity.
From the book KIDS, PARENTS, AND POWER STRUGGLES: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2000 by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. All rights reserved.
Buy the book at www.harpercollins.com.