All the Rage
Normalizing and coping with anger at your children.
Posted July 9, 2020
“Fine,” I surrendered to my 4-year-old, through gritted teeth, as I grabbed his arm a bit harder than intended. “I’ll come with you to the bathroom.”
I was in the middle of — what else? — a Zoom meeting hosted by our school superintendent about plans for the fall. My son had to use the bathroom and, although he’d had no hesitation about going by himself prior to the pandemic, he now insists upon grown-up company. His timing, in this case, was particularly poor, and no amount of pleading on my part was going to convince him to go, even just this once, on his own.
My son’s need — physical, emotional, whatever — clearly wasn’t going to wait for my meeting to be over, and I suddenly felt so, so angry about that. And so, the gritted teeth and arm-pulling.
I’m not proud of any of this, of course, but I’m sharing my struggles rather than letting shame and guilt reign victorious, as they have for parents — especially mothers — for so long. Even as a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with parents, I sometimes experience intense anger at my children, usually for reasons that are not even a little bit their fault. Recently, it’s been happening more frequently. And I’m not the only one.
In her fantastic July 6th piece in The New York Times, Minna Dubin correctly observed: “Between stay-at-home orders, COVID-19 health concerns, financial instability (or fear of it), and police violence against Black people, it is no surprise that mothers are experiencing intensified rage above the surface, and feelings of grief, fear, and loneliness below.” And in her aptly titled Wall Street Journal article at the end of last month, “Anger Management for an Angry Time,” Elizabeth Bernstein wrote, “We’re living in a time of great fury. The strain is spilling over into our personal lives, fomenting hostility with friends, family and even strangers ... ” I’d only add to that list, separately and explicitly, our children. We — albeit, thankfully, not all the time — are feeling hostile toward our children.
And it’s really, really uncomfortable. In all kinds of ways, and for all different reasons. Good mothers aren’t supposed to feel this way. I mean, right? Wrong. I believe — firmly and to my core — that I’m a good mother. I also believe that, during these difficult times, good mothers feel angry. And that, because good mothers are human, our children are sometimes the unintentional recipients of our anger.
Sadly, the hardships Dubin spells out (see also this other piece by Deb Perelman) are here to stay, at least for now, which means our anger is too. Here are a few suggestions for how to cope with it:
1. Embrace “radical acceptance.” The Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach describes radical acceptance as having two interdependent wings: seeing our experience clearly, and holding our experience with compassion. Together, she writes, they “they enable us to fly and be free.” Flying free sounds great to me, but so does just getting through the day without flying off the handle at my kids. That first wing — seeing experience clearly — means accepting life on life’s terms. This is where we are. It’s real. It’s happening. We don’t benefit from judging our anger, pushing it away, denying it, or exerting energy wishing it were different. Rather, we see it clearly, and we welcome it. I used to have Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” taped to my fridge; perhaps it’s time to put it back up. The first few lines read: “This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival./ A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some momentary awareness comes / as an unexpected visitor./ Welcome and entertain them all!”
Once we see clearly that we’re angry and own it as what is — not as what should or shouldn’t be — then we meet the anger with compassion. We’re doing the best we can. We feel deeply because we have big hearts. We have reason to be angry. We are going through a tough time. This is what is; this is radical acceptance.
2. Complete your fight response. As one of the emotions that triggers our “fight, flight, or freeze” response, anger is an evolutionarily adaptive reaction to danger, a warning in the face of threat. Interestingly, when wild animals have their lives threatened, they do not experience the same after effects of trauma that humans do. This is presumably so, as hypothesized by psychologist Peter Levine when he developed his Somatic Experiencing treatment, because they physically release the energy that gets accumulated in the nervous system during stressful events. Humans, conversely, frequently override their fight response, because their thinking brain — judgments, etc. — gets in the way and inhibits the nervous system’s natural capacity for self-regulation.
Allowing your body to release the physical energy associated with anger — to have its fight response — helps your nervous system recalibrate to a place of calm. The good news is that, from the perspective of your nervous system, there’s no difference between actually fighting your children (not recommended) and finding another physical outlet, such as exercise. It might not seem natural to put on your favorite dance song when you’re on the verge of strangling your kids, but it doesn’t need to — no matter how contrived it feels to your thinking brain, your nervous system will welcome it, and so it will help.
From a physiological standpoint, it can also help to release the energy by yelling. One of my favorite ways to allow my body to have its fight response is to punch the air and yell something silly at my kids — my nervous system gets the release it needs, and my kids know I’m still in control of my anger. “OMG!” I’ll scream occasionally while clenching my fists. “If you don’t stop asking for snacks I’m going to pour sauce and cheese on you and throw you in the toaster and turn you into a pizza so you can eat yourself! Grrr!” Mission accomplished.
3. Channel it. There are plenty of things to be legitimately raging about right now. If you're upset about misogyny, children in cages, systemic racism, police brutality, gun violence, or something else, you can pick one and go to battle for what you believe is right. There may be people and policies that deserve our collective anger at this moment in time, but our children are not among them.
4. Make a point of focusing on the good. Let me be clear: this is something I recommend not as a replacement for any of the above, but, rather, as an addition. Be deliberate about finding ways to feel — not just recognize, but actively feel — love toward your kids. Notice how sweet they look when they’re sleeping. Look at pictures from the day they were born. Watch a video of when they took their first steps. Dig out their preschool Mother’s or Father’s Day art project — the one with their tiny fingerprints.
5. Own your mistakes. I’m a broken record these days when it comes to discussing rupture and repair and the importance of apologizing to our kids when we mess up. That’s because it might be the most important thing we can do these days (also: always). Even if you do all of the above to a tee, you’re still going to make mistakes. When you do, say you’re sorry. The world needs more apologizing and forgiveness; what a gift that we can start right here in our homes.