Who in your family are you really angry with?

Last month I posted some ideas about managing anger when your children have really aggravated you.  I realize that suggestions like these are much easier said than done.  No one is perfect, but practice helps.

Now I have another thought about anger.  There are times that a child does something provocative, and a parent responds in anger, and a bystander might wonder, “Wow.  What was that about? Was it really about turning off the television or stopping the video game or annoying a sibling?”  Perhaps you have had one of those moments when you realize later that your response was out of proportion to the problem at hand.  Let’s face it–all parents have.

In my work as a child psychologist and parent coach I often have the opportunity to examine this issue with parents.  I find that sometimes parents are angry at the situation at hand, but they are also angry with someone else as well.  Perhaps you are a single parent, and you are very angry that you have been left alone to deal with the challenges of getting a child ready for bed.  Or perhaps you have two parents in the family, but you disagree about how much television or video game time is appropriate.  Thus, when you child resists turning off electronics, you are angry at you partner as well as your child.  In fact, when you scold, you might secretly hope that your partner hears what a problem the disagreement has caused.  Perhaps your child spoke to you in a tone of voice that you associate with an ex-spouse.  The situations are many and varied.

Children exist in a family, so it is no surprise that their behavior takes on particular meaning in the family.  These are always complicated situations that raise questions that often parents find painful to examine.  Yet for the sake of the child it is so important to examine these issues.  Children understand when parents’ anger is out of proportion to the situation.  They can learn to act angrily themselves from these situations.  It is so helpful to children when adults can react to them in the moment based on that behavior in the moment. That is, remember that this is a eight year old (or however old), not a representative of whomever else you are angry at.   It helps if you have a game plan already established for yourself about how you will respond to refusal to turn off electronics, delaying bedtime, etc. If you can give yourself a script, it is likely that you can manage to keep your words and actions appropriate to the issue at hand.

The more difficult issue is to examine that other anger that gets mixed up with children’s behavior.  Perhaps you and your partner need to have a frank talk about parenting policies and your feelings about it.  Perhaps you could use a consult with an expert in that area to advise you both.  Perhaps you need to do some work to come to terms with your anger and sadness about a failed relationship so that you can separate those feelings from your child.  These are complicated, tender issues, but dealing with them will make you a better parent and probably a better person.  Parenting is a hard but rewarding job, and no one does it perfectly.

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