Losing Your Parental Cool—How to Respond After an Angry Outburst

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.