Even under the best circumstances, day-to-day parenting comes with a certain amount of stress. Over the last year, many parents were also dealing with the added pressure of the pandemic and the many ways it impacted families. Challenges like working from home while managing remote schooling and/or keeping young children occupied, on top of juggling their daily lives, have taken an emotional and financial toll on many parents.
A consequence of this additional pressure is that parents may have a harder time keeping their cool while responding to their child’s needs and lose their temper. An angry outburst directed at children is upsetting and can make a parent feel awful, but allowing for some self-forgiveness is vital as it will aid in a parent’s ability to respond better the next time their child is having a hard time. Because parents are human and outbursts are likely to happen, especially when parents are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it’s helpful to understand the importance of what to do after this happens. In fact, what a parent chooses to do after the fact is key and can be a learning opportunity for children.
So, what should you do with the moments when you find yourself out of patience and want to be in control, but let your emotions get the best of you? Is there a compassionate way to express anger?
The best way to keep your anger from having a negative impact on your children’s emotional development is to avoid holding your children responsible for your angry feelings. Usually parents feel angry at their children for one of two reasons: the parent has had a bad day or feels exhausted and depleted or the parent’s expectations of the child’s behavior—listening, cooperating—doesn’t match the child’s capability for their age and development.
Here are some things you can do when you’ve lost your temper:
Apologize - After you have calmed down, offer a straightforward apology. You could say something like:
‘I’m sorry I got angry with you. I never want to yell at you.’
As noted in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., “When parents react to the stress they are under by blowing up at children for acting like children, they should apologize and not blame them. Children learn best by imitation and an apology teaches the life lesson that mistakes happen and that children need not accept unjustified anger.”
Discuss - If your child is old enough, you might talk about ways that you could have calmed down and avoided yelling, such as taking some deep breaths, leaving the room, or taking a walk. These discussions can help children learn tools they can use to calm down when they are feeling angry and out of control.
Readjust Expectations - Remember that children’s behavior is driven by their development. Expecting them to behave in ways counter to what is age-appropriate can lead to a parent becoming angry. It can be helpful to readjust your expectations and work around your child’s capability. For example, if you need uninterrupted time to finish a work project, try to wait until nap or bedtime or when a spouse/partner or other caregiver can be with your child. For older children, a visual clue, such as a sign on a door, can help remind them that you need some quiet time.
Stay Positive and Seek Support - There is no need to view anger as something that is “bad”—it’s another emotion and signals that a person is struggling and needs help. So, while parents want to protect their children from their direct expression of anger for the reasons mentioned above, they don't need to feel badly about themselves that they feel angry. Instead, it’s important to have self-compassion and can be helpful to get support for your feelings by talking them out with a supportive friend, spouse/partner, or a counseling professional.
We know that parents are often told that it is good for children to know that their behavior has made their parents angry. To this thinking, apologizing is ineffective because the child needs to “learn” that they have done something wrong, and therefore have warranted the outburst from their parent.
But when parents behave angrily toward children, children’s love of their parents drives them to copy them. Over time, children will learn to use anger and self-rejection as a way of managing themselves and as a response to others with whom they disagree. Instead, parents should model kindness by apologizing and using an apology as a springboard for conversations about how to handle angry feelings.
Remember that when you find your patience giving out and end up yelling at your children, a simple apology can not only strengthen your parent-child bond but can also help instill a culture of kindness at home. In this culture, children will identify with their parent’s kindness towards them and not by being made to feel unhappy. And try to use the times when you lose your temper with others, such as your spouse/partner, as an opportunity to model how to communicate a negative feeling respectfully by expressing your anger in a reflective, self-caretaking, and caring way. Doing so will help your child learn that it is possible to disagree with another person and still love and care for that person.
How to Apologize to Your Kids, Jessica Grose, The New York Times, March 10, 2021
@MHPieperPhD. "When as #parents or #teachers we lose it verbally with children it's important to apologize & not add "But I wouldn't have yelled if you hadn't (fill in the blank)" We should try not to blame children for being children & when we do inevitably get angry we shouldn't justify it." Twitter, 15 Mar. 2021, 4:44 p.m., https://twitter.com/MHPieperPhD/status/1371578185398243337.
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Harvard Common Press. 1999
Smart Love Solutions for Early Childhood, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Smart Love Family Services, 2012