Dealing with anger

 It looks like flossing my teeth has now become a habit. It used to be just a good intention – until I read an article about how much gum disease can affect your general health. The information acted as motivation.

So it is with anger. All parents get mad at their kids sometimes. In fact, dare I say it, all parents lose the plot and yell at their kids now and then. But the more I find out about how destructive that can be, the better I’m getting at staying calm and expressing anger appropriately.

Let’s face it, single parents are emotionally vulnerable. Take frustration and a lack of support, add stress, a pinch of financial worries and a large dollop of fatigue – and you’ve got a recipe for blowing up.

One of the myths about anger is that it’s “best to let it all out” – the belief that venting anger is healthy and that if you get it out, it will go away. Yelling or hitting can temporarily release tension, but it fails to deal with the underlying problem.

More importantly, children are hugely affected by a parent who yells and screams. They become fearful and insecure, walking on eggshells, and often develop a pattern of lying in order to avoid a scene. They can also end up victims of playground bullying or as bullies themselves.

The opposite myth is that, “all anger is bad, so don’t show it.” Anger per se is not bad, it’s neutral. Physiologically, anger is a fight or flight response to stress or threat; it’s how we express it that makes it positive or negative.

Much of the way we react depends on our family of origin. Women who were yelled at as children often become loud, abusive mothers themselves. This is critical for single parents – the realisation that how we alone model anger is most likely how our children will express it too.

Psychologist Miranda Bain says anger management is a learned skill. One of the first keys is to become self-aware: figure out what makes you get angry and when; and identify the physical signs you’re starting to lose your cool.

“For some parents, it might be a pit in the stomach or shaking hands. If you can monitor yourself, you’re on the way to managing anger appropriately.”

Train yourself to talk in “I” statements and avoid labelling children. For example, “I’m angry that you pulled all the books off the shelf,” and not, “You’re such a naughty girl and you make Mummy mad.”

Crouch down when telling children off. A loud, upright, gesticulating parent can be quite frightening.

Loud is not always bad – it depends on the type of family and culture. For example. raised voices may be quite the norm in an American-Italian family! Loud can be harmful, however, if you and your family are not normally that way.

One of the best tools for parents is time out, not just for children, but for yourself.

“Tell your child, ‘I need some time out, I need to go and sit on the deck for a minute or two,’”says Miranda, who has co-ordinated empowerment programmes for women.

“Time out can be a consequence, but it can also be a tactic that everyone uses to keep their behaviour in check. Where families use this, I’ve often seen children putting themselves in time out.”

It can be just about impossible for single mothers to get any space from their children. “But even sitting on the deck and counting to 100, or phoning a friend, can help. We need to show children we can self-soothe too.”

Miranda says if single parents don’t have support from family or friend, they can be more vulnerable to becoming abusive.

“It’s very important for solo mums to find ways of creating a community for themselves.”

Yelling at the kids is often an indication of anger in some other area of life – for example, anger which is part of the grief process after divorce or separation; or anger over access or child support money.

Again, self-awareness is important in order to identify the true reason for your anger. Remember to deal with adult issues away from the children.

Of course, if you are concerned about your anger, or if anyone is getting hurt, then don’t hesitate to seek help as soon as possible.

And, finally, don’t forget to apologise to your children when you mess up.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, I was wrong to yell at you. Please forgive me,” is humbling, powerful and tremendously healing.

Useful Websites

Anger Management Courses

Relationship services offer a range of courses throughout New Zealand, including anger management courses.  You can read more about their services and contact details in our article on Relationship Services.

Sandi Paterson

Sandi Paterson is a freelance journalist based in Tauranga. She lives in a 1950's bach with her daughter, a grumpy cat, and a budgie who sits on her computer when she writes. This article appeared originally in Little Treasures magazine.

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