By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Our children’s misbehavior may sometimes infuriate us. They may misbehave frequently, and the resulting anger we as parents feel should not necessarily be disregarded or condemned, as it is sometimes a natural reaction. However, yelling at the children or retaliating in some way always seems on reflection to be counterproductive and emotionally harmful to both parent and child. Moreover, it often doesn’t seem to prevent the behavior from repeating itself!
But how do we deal with our angry feelings? How do we discipline our children without harming their emotional health?
Anger Management for Parents
Fortunately, Haim Ginott, famed psychologist from the 1960’s, a pioneer in anger management for parents, invented a very productive concept which is termed “Anger without insult.” I’ve synthesized his work and my own ideas and added elucidation.
Parents have feelings too!
Elsewhere in my blog, I’ve spoken about the importance of accepting, recognizing and validating all of children’s feelings, even negative ones. However, parents are people too, and their feelings need to be accepted as well for the parents’ own emotional health! This is done through anger without insult. When a child makes a parent angry, the parent may describe and express his anger to the child, but without attacking, insulting, putting down or retaliating aggressively.
Instead of saying, “What is wrong with you! How could you leave such a mess! You’re a disaster, clean it up now!” which criticizes, insults, and commands, you may say emphatically, “When I come home and I see this mess I get furious! I am boiling! In our house we are considerate of others and keep things clean. The broom is over there.”
We can easily perceive the difference! The latter, which is more appropriate, simply describes your feelings and states your values, and gives information about how the situation may be remedied, without insulting, criticizing or giving orders. This informs the child that your feelings exist and that they merit respect, that there are standards that we should strive to keep.
The former acts out our anger in aggressive verbal or physical actions or attacks. This is almost always harmful to both parent and child. So there is a clear difference between feeling, validating, and even communicating our anger on the one hand, which is better, and acting out anger in aggressive verbal or physical actions or attacks on the other hand, which is almost always more harmful.
Please be advised that the absolute ideal way to deal with parental anger, may be to control it, if possible, and avoid burdening the child with his parents' emotional needs. However if you simply cannot control your anger and it may burst forth in an aggressive, harmful way, this method of anger without insult is much preferable.
The rule with Anger Management for Parents is, hurl values, not insults, hurl expectations, not orders, hurl feelings not criticism.
Stating what our values are inspires children to comply because it gives them our vote of confidence that they will rise to the occasion and behave appropriately. Instead of threatening, “Don’t you dare speak to me that way!” say, “In our family we speak to each other with respect.” This gives the child the opportunity to elevate himself and behave better of his own accord. Instead of ordering, “Don’t you ever speak to me that way again”, which makes the child feel controlled and bossed, state your expectations, “I expect you to tell me politely when something is bothering you.” This avoids direct commands and allows the child to act out of self-determination, making him feel empowered so he will be more likely comply. Instead of hurling criticism, such as: “I’m sick of your mouth,” hurl your feelings, like: “It makes me angry when I’m spoken to that way. It even makes me furious. I feel as if I’m going to explode!” This gives the child objective information about the effects of his actions, without attacking his character or attacking him personally. It leaves his self-respect intact and allows him an opening to improve.
Generally when you are expressing anger avoid using, “You,” as in, “Why are you behaving that way,” “You are such a pest” “You are driving me crazy”. Instead talk more about your feelings by saying “I”, as in, “I get so upset when you do that,” and “I need to be helped around here,” and “I expect you to treat your brother with respect.” This prevents the child from feeling attacked personally and focuses on the objective information necessary to resolve the problem.
Furthermore, expressing your angry feelings in a way that they can be heard and understood by the child will give you a great deal of relief and resolution, allowing you to calm down more easily.
Some Behaviors Are Not So Bad
There is another technique for defusing parental anger, called “reframing.” When a child misbehaves or is disrespectful, sometimes parents “catastrophize”, that is they spiral out of control, fearing that the behavior will lead to an intolerable or shameful situation, to anarchy or delinquency. This fear causes a very angry reaction in an attempt to prevent that fear from being actualized. However we may remedy this by reframing the behavior as being within the range of normalcy and no real cause for alarm. A certain amount of misbehavior in children is normal, healthy, and acceptable, and is not a sign of eventual disaster. Ninety percent of misbehavior falls within that safe range, and this knowledge reduces our fear and turns aside our anger. Most of the time we can just sigh and say, “Kids will be kids.” We can learn to laugh at their mischievous escapades, relax and take them in stride. Happily tolerating a certain degree of misbehavior and disorder is one of the key skills of parenting.
Remember, as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, most misbehaviors are caused by a child’s lowered level of happiness, and by injecting happiness into the child’s day and fulfilling his emotional needs, we can prevent most misbehavior and our resulting angry reaction. Wake up with the mantra, “How can I make my child’s day pleasant?” and you can nip many problems in the bud.
To learn how to deal with children's anger, click here.
Please be aware that the above represents a parenting ideal, and I don’t expect anyone to fulfill it perfectly. Therefore have patience with yourself and try to implement these new ideas gradually. Feel free to peruse the rest of this informative blog, the specialties on my website, or download one of my interesting free reports.
If you are in need of “Anger Management for Parents” and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan,
you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!