Every time you boil over in fury the
kids are watching and picking up tips. Is it time to change the
programme? Dr Melanie Woodfield explains.
Before I became a mum, I had plans to be the perfect parent -
always cool, calm and collected. The little tykes could throw a
monumental wobbly and relaxed Mum would gently shepherd them into
the car, while murmuring reassurance. I thought years of caring for
children with behavioural problems would stand me in good stead.
Little did I know my children could (and would) press buttons I
didn't know I had. Little did I know that caring for other people's
children for eight hours was not the same as caring for my own 24
hours a day, seven days a week.
We often read about how to help children
manage their anger, but what about when Mum and Dad are the ones
who lose it? It's natural and normal to feel and express a range of
emotions, including anger. It's only to be expected that our
children will make us angry. Sometimes it's frustration with their
slowness, messiness or disorganisation. Sometimes it's fury at the
way they looked at us. Different things will set different people
Any takers for the
- An older child (apparently deliberately)
hurting the new baby.
- A child biting/hitting/kicking/punching a
sibling, or you.
- A toddler (apparently deliberately) wetting
or soiling their pants, despite being toilet-trained.
- A toddler tipping food or mess in general
onto clean floors.
These things, in and of themselves, won't necessarily
trigger our anger. So what factors are likely to tip us from a
state of irritation or frustration into full-blown anger? This will
vary from parent to parent, but might include:
- Feeling very protective towards a new baby and/or
younger child. All sorts of hormones float around during the early
weeks and months and one of their jobs is to make us naturally
protective of our young. When a threat presents itself (even in the
form of a tiny toddler), we can become very grumpy, very
- Speaking of hormones, we all know women are
vulnerable to irritability (read: cranky) at "certain times of the
- Sleep deprivation can make us more inclined to
- Isolation and lack of support doesn't help.
This may affect single mums, or mums spending long hours alone
caring for children.
Being angry, in and
of itself, is not a problem. Telling
your child "Mummy is angry because…" is likely to be helpful for
your child. As they grow, children will begin to feel anger
themselves, and giving them words to express their anger may help
them to better manage it. Social psychologists call this modelling.
Not Naomi Campbell modelling, but social modelling. The idea is
that children are primed to imitate what important adults around
them do - how they handle happiness, sadness and anger. The old
saying, "Do what I say, not what I do" is a bit of a waste of
breath - children are like little sponges, ready and waiting to do
what you do - not what you say. Instead, try learning to express
your own anger in a helpful way.
If you're struggling to think of how to
do this, the following phrases might be of use. Try getting your
head around them (even practising them out loud) before you get
angry. That way, they're more likely to come naturally when you are
Instead of "You little […]. Not again!",
try: "I'm not angry at you, I'm angry that this has happened again.
How can we make sure it doesn't happen again?"
Instead of "I'm so angry right now!"
which doesn't give kids any information about why you're angry,
try: "Mum is angry because her nice clean floor now has paint all
over it. I worked really hard to clean it and now I'm angry and
It can also be helpful to notice when
kids seem angry (it's often hard not to notice!) and to comment on
this, giving them words to express their feelings. For example,
younger kids might like: "Is that an angry face you're wearing?
What happened to change your face from a happy face to an angry
face?" Older kids might respond well to something like, "I'm
guessing that the frown on your face means you're angry. What
happened? How can we work together to fix it?"
Anger = aggression?
Anger is only really a problem when it's never expressed
(think bubbling resentment) or when it's expressed as aggression or
violence towards ourselves or others. Aggression is a common
by-product of anger, and it can land us in sticky situations before
we know it. I'm sure you've noticed that young children in
particular tend to display anger or frustration through physical
acts (hitting, kicking, punching, throwing things). As we mature,
and our brains develop, our ability to inhibit these physical urges
usually improves, and we express our anger in different ways.
Sometimes, however, circumstances mean that we can revert to our
child-like ways of showing anger.
It's actually quite common to have
occasional thoughts, in anger, about doing things that we would
NEVER do while calm. We've all watched news stories of children who
have been hurt or killed by their parents, and wondered how it
could happen. No parent wakes up in the morning and plans to hurt
their child. Even "bad" parents usually don't intend to be bad. But
when stressed and sleep-deprived, little things can make us very
angry, very fast. Add to that drug use or lots of alcohol, or a
parent or caregiver who grew up in a violent home, and all of a
sudden the reasons for child abuse become less mysterious.
Did you know?
It's worth getting on top of our inappropriate displays of anger,
as studies are starting to show angry mums and dads can have
long-lasting effects on their children. Researchers have known for
a long time children growing up in homes where anger and violence
feature often are more likely to have poorer emotional and
psychological outcomes. But a recent study has also shown angry and
stressed mums can increase physical health problems in their
children. Last year, Jun Nagano and colleagues from the Institute
of Health Science in Japan studied mums who were chronically
irritable and angry and under lots of stress. Interestingly, these
mums were more likely to have young children with more severe
asthma. The children of serene mums were more likely to have less
severe asthma. Interesting, huh?
How to stay cool
The Strategies for Kids, Information for Parents (SKIP) website
and brochures are full of practical, relevant information, check
out www.skip.org.nz. The following tips are
courtesy of SKIP's "Tips on Stress" brochure, and are great for
- Think about how you react to certain
situations. Are there some things that wind you up more than
others? Talk about these with someone else and think of ways you
can manage.Sometimes just accepting "I can't do anything about it,
it's not my problem" is a relief.
- Set realistic expectations. If you've got
small children, trying to keep the house really tidy is impossible.
Set aside a time at the end of the day when you put all the toys
- Exercise. Go for a walk three times a week,
do 20 sit-ups every morning or dig the garden.
- Set aside some time for yourself. Sit and
read a book for 10 minutes, or watch TV. Don't spend all the time
when your children are asleep or busy rushing around trying to do
things - use that time for yourself.
These tips are great
for lowering stress overall, and reducing the chance that you'll
end up seriously angry at your child, your partner, or yourself. If
you do find yourself really, really angry, particularly if you're
angry at your child, you may need another strategy. It can be
helpful (and often safer for everyone) to put yourself in time-out.
Most importantly, make sure the kids are safe (put them in their
cot, highchair, or in front of the TV) and leave the room, just for
a few minutes. Sit on the deck or ring your partner or a friend,
and allow yourself to get some perspective: this challenge WILL
pass, things WILL get better, the kids WILL get older, and
eventually, they WILL move out.
When to ask for help for yourself
If you find yourself very angry most of the time, it is a good
idea to seek help from a professional. Not because you're bonkers,
but because it's really, really tiring to be stressed, angry and
frustrated all the time. It's a huge load for anyone to carry, and
there are professionals out there who can help. Admitting that
you've been angry, and even admitting that you've thought about
hurting your child, is incredibly challenging. You might be afraid
that your child will be taken off you, or that your partner or
family will think less of you. Both of these things are highly
unlikely. Be brave, seek help.
- If you're in Auckland, the Parent Trust runs
programmes for parents who struggle to manage their anger. Go
- The National Network of Stopping Violence
Services is an excellent resource for finding programmes in your
local area, see www.nnsvs.org.nz. If you want someone to talk
to right now, ring Lifeline, 0800 543 354, or
When to ask for help for
To me this one is simple. If your instinct tells you a child is
not safe, or a parent is stressed to the point where a child could
get hurt, you have a moral responsibility to do something about it.
We've seen too many cases where a child has died or been seriously
hurt, and neighbours and friends have later said they'd always had
their suspicions. First, try approaching the person you're worried
about, and gently suggest they need support. If that doesn't help,
or if you're seriously worried about a child's wellbeing, phone
Child, Youth and Family (CYF) on 0508 FAMILY and talk about your
concerns. You can ask to remain anonymous.
Dr Melanie Woodfield is a child and adolescent clinical
psychologist in Auckland, and the mother of two young
* Nagano, J., Kakuta, C., Motomura, C., Odajima, H., Sudo,
N., Nishima, S. and Kubo, C. (2010). "The parenting attitudes and
the stress of mothers predict the asthmatic severity of their
children: a prospective study", BioPsychoSocial Medicine 4:12,
available from: http://www.bpsmedicine.com/content/4/1/12.
As seen in OHbaby!
magazine Issue 14: 2011
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