Dear Mr. Dad: I generally have a very even temper as a parent, but once in a while, little things build up and POW! I completely lose my cool. The kids look terrified when it happens, and I always hate myself for that. How can I control my temper?
A: Okay, everyone who’s NEVER gone ballistic in front of their kids, raise your hand. Come on, get ‘em up there…
Just as I thought. No hands!
The first thing you need to do is to take it easy on yourself. Every parent who lives outside of a 1950s TV show gets angry at times. It’s an absolutely normal and acceptable response to frustration. We all know how infuriating it can be when your child translates your “NOW” into “when I’m good and ready,” or when your third, calm, request to do—or stop doing—something is completely ignored.
The key is not to avoid being angry, but to ensure that your anger is (1) properly directed, (2) proportional, and (3) productive. Let’s take a look at these one at a time.
· Properly directed anger is anger directed at its actual cause. We’ve all had the experience of a bad day at work, followed by an infuriating commute, followed by walking in the door and stepping on a toy left on the floor. Who are you going to yell at? Your boss? The traffic? Nope—it’s the oh-so-handy child who didn’t put away his toys like you’ve told him a hundred times to do.
You can avoid misdirected anger by being aware of your own state of mind. If the day and the commute were bad, pull into the driveway, turn off the ignition, and take a moment to breathe before going inside. Recognize and dissipate the build-up, then leave it in the car. Those sixty seconds could turn out to be the best parenting you’ll ever do.
· Anger is proportional when it “fits the crime.” The misdirection above resulted in a huge response to a small infraction. But there are plenty of other things that cause us to go “pow,” as you put it, when a much more tempered response was called for.
Sometimes, the unjustified explosion can result, ironically, from trying not to get angry at all. You see little Jenny playing with her water glass at dinner, but you hold your tongue. Don’t want to be a mean Dad, after all. Once, twice, three times she tips the glass on edge…closer and closer…. Finally it spills—and you explode.
Yes, she was wrong to play with the glass, but the size of your outburst was based on the corrections you didn’t make, or only made in your head. If this is a pattern for you, practice allowing yourself that small scold early on to prevent a later outburst. Anger itself can be fine if it’s proportional.
· Above all, you want your anger to be productive rather than destructive. Though it varies from child to child and age to age, children have an inherent desire to please their parents. Letting a child know that something has made you angry can be a valuable part of learning right from wrong. But anger that is out of control is hurtful, both to the child’s learning and to your relationship. If angry outbursts get to be a pattern, a sense of resentment can develop in children that lasts for years and is hard to overcome.
Try not to discipline when angry. Anger clouds judgment and leads to decisions you’re likely to regret later. Take time to think so your discipline is reasonable and proportional. And never, ever strike a child, in anger or otherwise. The best current research shows that corporal punishment is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. (I know I’ll get plenty of letters from readers telling me otherwise, but the research is very clear.)
Everyone has to learn how to manage their emotional life, including your kids. If they see you not denying or suppressing your natural anger but handling it intelligently, they will learn to do the same.