Ever tried to control your reaction when you were really, really mad? Having good intentions is one thing—reality is quite another. You can think all you want that the next time your kids provoke you, you will not react angrily no matter how mad you are. But seriously, when you’re really mad, can you even think straight, let alone control your reaction?
This post originally appeared on A Fine Parent.
The devil is in the details. Unless you have a solid plan of action under your sleeve, you will probably just end up screaming at your kids, feeling guilty, possibly apologizing, and then repeating the whole behavior all over again. If anything, that just erodes your connection with your kids further. That’s certainly not what we’re going after here.
If you really want to give your good intentions a fighting chance of success and ensure that you will indeed not scream at your kids no matter how mad you are, you need to act now. Assuming you’re not angry at the moment, now is the time to decide how you’ll respond at a later time when you’re indeed angry. Making a list of possible responses and then reaching out to your pre-committed choices when you are angry, substantially increases your chances of success. (There’s a whole body of research to support this.)
Research consistently shows that the more in advance you make a decision—irrespective of whether it’s about your money, exercise, or even which movie to watch—the more likely you are to make better choices. The closer you are to the decision point, the more short-sighted your decision gets, with spot decisions made under pressure being some of your worst ones. Additionally, if you make a choice and commit to it, you completely bypass your brain and reach out to a pre-committed choice, avoiding the detrimental outcomes of short-sighted decisions.
I’ll get the ball rolling with the list of eight things I rely on to get me through. The key is to become aware of the choices you have, and pre-commit to them so when you’re angry, you can bypass your short-sighted response of yelling at your kids.
Get Out of the Situation
If I’m at home, I will ask my husband if he can take over, and I just walk out of the room for a few minutes. Yes, that means I literally dump the situation on him. From past experience, I’ve noticed that most often—since he was not in the middle of it when the storm brewed—he’s in a much better situation to handle it without yelling and I get a break to cool off.
Of course this works vice versa too. When I notice that my husband is starting to lose it, I’ll step in and scoop up, so he can step out. As for my daughter, just the change of scene, where one parent steps out and the other steps in, seems to help a lot to diffuse the situation.
Let My Daughter Know that I’m Angry
Again, from past experience I know this one works. Instead of just snapping, I take a deep breath and tell her, "Mommy is getting really mad now, Sweetie." Sometimes, she’ll stop the offending behavior, but more often than not, she counters back with “I’m mad too” or “No, you CANNOT be mad” (she is five years old and that’s a valid argument in her book). Either way, I think a channel of communication is established. After that I just walk away and let her be for a few minutes to calm herself down. And take my time to calm myself down. Or hold her in my lap and say, "Let’s both be very quiet for a few minutes until we calm down."
I got this last step from the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. I felt really hokey the first time I tried it—I mean, I was hopping mad and she was bawling at the top of her voice! But then, quite unexpectedly, my daughter visibly calmed down, and when I was setting her down from my lap she said “I want to hug some more, mama.” So we just sat there for some more time, in a sappy scene I wouldn’t have envisioned myself a few minutes before, her sniffling and me trying to calm down. And then she declared "I’m done now," and hopped off and started playing as though nothing ever happened. Ah, to be five and be able to forgive and forget so easily!
Set a Time Limit to End the Hostilities
The scariest thing about getting mad is that there is no clear boundary to when things will settle back to normal again. I’ve found that intentionally setting that boundary helps a lot to get the situation under control. I remember, once when I started getting mad, I hissed out, “I am very mad now, so I am going to go wash the dishes and try to calm down. When I am done with the dishes I will be done being mad.” My daughter pitifully cried “I don’t want you to be mad at me, mama” and I said as calmly as I could “I am not mad at you. I still love you. But you have not finished eating yet and it’s getting very late. I am tired and feeling crabby (a term she understands). I need some time to calm down. And you need to finish eating. I will be over here washing dishes.”
She started whining at first and when she got nothing out of me, suddenly (and very surprisingly!) there was silence on her end. All I could hear was the sound of spoon on the plate and a declaration a few minutes later that she was done. I rinsed and dried my hands, walked over to her, inspected her plate and gave her a big smile. And she gave me a big hug to make me feel better. All was well with the world again. One more dinnertime explosion avoided. And one more trick in my parenting toolkit that is proven to work!
Put Things in Perspective
Sometimes all I need to do to diffuse myself is to put things in perspective. If it’s the morning and she wants to play instead of getting ready, and it’s really late and driving me nuts, all I have to do is think back to a time long, long ago—same situation, different child. I suspect, I wouldn’t have wanted to stop playing either. Kids are kids. They want to play. That’s that. No point getting all worked up over it, right? Sigh. Take a deep breath. Think of an alternate plan to get her to do what I want her to do.
I don’t think this one will exactly fit in the “positive parenting” paradigm since it uses threats and fear of punishment and bribes. But I will put it out there since this works for me. Basically, instead of yelling at her, I tell her in as much of a calm voice as I can muster up, “I am going to count to five. If you are don’t start picking up the toys, they all go into the trash can.” And then I start counting. 1… 2….3….4…. Generally, by the time I get to 3 and my voice starts to rise she starts picking up. I’ll start helping her out as I continue counting, adjusting the pace of counting so we can finish up cleaning by the time I get to 5.
I have no idea why this works, but it does work really, really well to the point that a lot of the time I just say “You better do something before I count to 5” and I just start counting. I don’t even have to mention the consequences. I had picked this tip from a colleague and I remember her saying “One of these days she is going to call my bluff and let me finish counting. I have no idea what I will do then.” I have no idea either, but until that day, this trick is in.
Turn it Into a Fictional Story
My daughter loves stories. And ever since she was born, I have honed my storytelling skills to the point that I can turn any situation into a story. Last time we went to India, there was a little servant boy called “Heera” who had left a strong impression on my daughter. For almost a year after we got back, I have told her “Heera Boy” stories to diffuse all kinds of situations. For instance, when she wouldn’t want to go down for a nap, instead of arguing/pleading/yelling, I would start out with “Do you know what happened when Heera boy did not take a nap?” Before the story was done, she would be in bed with eyes starting to slowly close shut.
I’ve summoned Heera boy to get her to drink her milk, get dressed, brush teeth, take medicine and so many other things! The stories all have similar structure–Heera boy did (or did not) want to do something. This would result in some very nasty consequences. Then either his grandma or his fairy godmother would come and tell him what he should do to avoid the consequences, and so he changed his ways. Everything was well with the world and he lived happily ever after.
A good thing about trying to make up a story is that my brain is too busy thinking what I should say next, and hers is too busy imagining it, and neither of us has room in our brains to yell/rebel anymore.
Frankly, this doesn’t come naturally to me, especially when I’m mad. But when I do manage to pull it off, the results are quite awesome. Instead of getting mad at her, I turn it into a fun game. “You want to eat M&Ms before dinner? Before dinner? That makes me so mad… so mad that I’m going to eat you up!” And I start chasing her around the house. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the times that it works, we have both run around all over the house and are tired and giggling and the rebellious moment is most often forgotten.
Visualize the Aftermath
Finally, here is one for those days when I’m just not in a good place. All of us have those days—days when we almost wait for someone to slip up so we can pounce on them. This last one is my final attempt to hold myself together on such days. One thing about not starting out being a patient mom (unfortunately) is that I’ve been there, done that. I know the dark places you can go to when you don’t get a hold of yourself.
I am all too familiar with the sick feeling you get at the bottom of your stomach when you drive all the way to the daycare without a word and leave your child among strangers without so much as a smile on your face. Or the nasty taste in your mouth when your child finally falls asleep because she’s cried so much there isn’t much energy left in her to do anything else. Or the real panic in her eyes when she senses that you really are over the edge.
Those are not my proudest moments, and I would never want to go back there. So, when I sense that I really am getting out of control, I grab hold of one of those images and keep telling myself over and over, “don’t go there.” In a very negative way, it works. Maybe it’s the tears stinging the back of my eyes, or the shame that numbs my anger. Whatever it is, I manage to not let loose. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, right?
So there you have it–the good, the bad, and the ugly of how I try to control my reaction when I am too angry to think straight. Now it’s your turn. How do you manage anger when it comes to your kids?
Sumitha Bhandarkar is the founder of the emerging community afineparent.com that focuses on personal development exclusively for parents. This article was part of the challenge to Stop Yelling at Kids that the members are taking on this month. If becoming a better person and parents is on your to-do list, Sumitha welcomes you to join them!
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