Jill Kane, Psy.D.
One of my mommy patients came to her appointment crying. “At 3:00am this morning,” she sobbed, “my four month old baby woke up and even after a long nursing she refused to go back to sleep. I was so tired and so angry that I actually yelled at my sweet, tiny baby. I was raging mad. I know she couldn’t understand my words, but I was still so embarrassed, even in front of myself. Who yells at a tiny baby like that?”
Actually, a lot of people yell at tiny babies like that. Even good, stable, not-crazy parents sometimes lose it with their kids. All “normal” parents, in fact, could probably recollect any number of times they felt like they “lost it” with their child. These are not parents who abuse their kids, although of course abuse does happen (and if it is happening for you or to someone you know, please get help immediately and see the resources at the end of this article). Typical, average, non-abusive parents sometimes have moments of pure unadulterated rage toward their children. Sometimes their anger is directed at a tiny baby, other times the anger is toward a toddler or older kid. And parents of adolescents can generally recount how many times a day their teenager make them furious.
Another patient said, “My 3 year old hit me. I told him not to hit and then he looked directly at me and hit me again. I picked him up. He hit my face. I tried a time out. He wouldn’t stay in the time out. After about 5 minutes (it felt more like an hour) of trying to get him to stay in a time out, I got pissed. I wanted to throw him against a wall, but of course I didn’t. I wanted to scream and I finally burst into tears because I was so exhausted, angry, and ashamed that I couldn’t calm myself or my child down. This whole episode occurred because I wanted to put on his shoes so we could go to the park and play.”
Although there are a ton of books written on how to handle children’s tantrums and children’s other behavioral issues (see resources at the end of the article), there is less social or professional discussion about the mommy tantrums that are bound to occur. Kids are difficult and all of them at times are tough to handle. Although parents often have supportive conversations with other parents, they don’t always discuss some of their most shameful parenting moments. Because parental anger is talked about so rarely, moms (and dads) often feel isolated in their moments of rage. They can’t help but wonder why no one else gets as angry toward their kid as they do. Even moms who discuss their anger with others feel like they are the only ones who get THAT mad. Often, people feel embarrassed, worried, or simply baffled by the intensity of the anger they feel.
Its time for mommy rage to come out of the closet. Everyone knows and agrees that sometimes kids can be totally infuriating. Anger is a perfectly normal reaction to frustration, aggravation and exhaustion. If you have ever felt angry, furious, and just plain pissed off at your young child, you are the rule rather than the exception. If you are having frequent outbursts, get professional help. Frequent mommy tantrums can be destructive to your relationship with your child. However, mommy tantrum moments that happen infrequently are probably not going to harm you or your child. At some point every parent is likely to feel angry because their infant won’t go back to sleep, their colicky baby won’t stop crying, their toddler won’t stay still for a diaper change, their child will refuse to eat or wear shoes or leave the park. Generally it is not the first conflict of wills that causes such rage in parents. Generally it is the third, fourth, or what feels like the millionth conflict of wills that sends parents from zero to sixty in mere seconds.
Although everyone has moments of intense anger, acting out that anger on a child is not okay and, in fact, not even particularly helpful. Moms tend to feel guilty and ashamed about acting out their anger (i.e.: yelling, stomping, crying, slamming doors etc). The child who is the recipient of that anger usually feels scared, insecure, out of control, and shamed. Children need their parents to be in control – especially when they are not. A parent’s rage does not make the parent feel better and the kid’s behavior doesn’t change. In fact, the behavior may become worse.
Remember: every parent gets angry with their kids sometimes. Anger is a normal human emotional response to feeling frustrated, invisible, unheard or ignored. Here are some tips on how to handle that anger for more effective parenting:
First and foremost: make a plan about what you are going to do next time you feel like screaming at the top of your lungs. All toddlers like to say “no!” All babies wake at night and can’t go back to sleep. All young kids at one point or another are going to refuse to go to bed; throw their food; draw on the wall, couch, or floor; hit another child, and any other number of annoying things that only kids an think of. If you have a plan on how to handle whatever the awful situation is before it happens, you have a way of combating your anger (and your kid’s behavior) before it escalates. The plan should include discipline tactics for your child (again, check out the resources at the end of this article) as well as self-discipline tactics for yourself such as knowing when to ask for help, when to take a mommy time out or a deep breath or a silent scream in the closet, or whatever you usually do to make yourself feel better.
When you are calmer, consider why you are getting so angry at a particular behavior. What is the trigger? Often when your emotional resilience is low (meaning you can’t tolerate your kid for another second) it may be because you are sleep deprived, lack social or emotional support, feel isolated, helpless or just plain overwhelmed. Maybe you hate feeling like you have no control. Maybe you are mad at your spouse but are taking it out on your kid. Maybe you are hungry (which also tends to affect mood). Maybe your current financial situation is causing lots of stress or you had a really bad day at work. If you can assess why you are getting so angry, you may be able to figure out a way to help yourself from getting that angry again the next time. And there will be a next time!
Think about what might be going on for your kid. Did s/he get enough sleep/food/cuddle time? Is there a new baby in the house? Have you or your spouse been gone a lot? Is s/he getting sick? Maybe they had a bad day at school or are struggling with potty training. Sometimes a child’s unreasonable behavior is due to something they don’t know how to verbalize. Understanding the child’s trigger can go along way toward preventing the battle.
If you need help managing your anger, don’t hesitate to get it. Of course feeling angry is normal, but anger that is left unacknowledged, untreated, or makes you feel bad about yourself can lead to behavior that is NOT normal. Although physical and emotional abuse of children is more prevalent than anyone would care to admit, typical parents get angry sometimes – and even yell – but they do not hit, berate, humiliate, or shame their child. If you have questions about whether you or someone you know is being abusive toward a child, there are a number of resources available and here are just a few:
Childhelp National Abuse Line at 1-800-4-A-CHILD or go to http://www.childhelp.org.
Child Protective Services at www.capcsac.org/cps
Prevent Child Abuse America http://www.preventchildabuse.org
First 5 California at www.First5california.com
For parenting help:
Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson
Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell
Raising your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
If you decide you want professional help, call or email me and I will be happy to refer you to the appropriate person or place. Just a few appointments with a therapist can make all the difference.