If you've found yourself shrieking at your child — and regretting it — this advice is for you.
My husband, our two kids, and I were enjoying an idyllic trip to Hawaii, driving up the winding (and dangerous) Road to Hana and taking in the beauty of the cliffs and coastline. And then it happened. For no apparent reason, my son, then age 5, threw a water bottle from the backseat toward my husband, and it hit the windshield with a ferocious bang. By some miracle, we didn't crash, but we did lose control...big-time. Both my husband and I were ranting, raving, screaming, threatening: "Why would you do that? Don't you know we could have been killed? Here we are taking you on the vacation of a lifetime, and you throw a water bottle for no reason?" And on and on we went, spewing way more venom than our preschooler could ever deserve or even comprehend, for that matter.
Tears began rolling down our son's cheeks, and his lip quivered as he fought back sobs. After what I'm sure seemed like an eternity to him, we calmed down and continued on our way, and I tried to bury the incident in the back of my mind.
I had almost forgotten all about it when, a few weeks later, I replayed our Hawaii-trip video. There I was, recording a waterfall out the window of the car. I tucked the camera into its bag — accidentally leaving it still recording — and then the "water bottle incident" occurred. Though the screen was black, I heard my husband and myself screaming at our son, badgering him, shaming him.
Then it was my turn to fight back tears. How could I have freaked out like that in front of my kids, at my kid? The rant sounded so much more vicious and vile than I remembered its having been, but there it was on tape — proof that I was the worst mother in the world. I may have erased that incident from the vacation video, but I don't think I'll ever be able to erase it from my memory.
Like it or not, most of us parents flip out in front of our dear children from time to time. Sometimes the anger is aimed at them, other times not, but it's almost always a deeply unsettling experience. Fortunately, there are simple — sometimes surprising — steps you can take to repair the damage, not to mention avoid meltdowns in the future.
The High Price of Losing It
First, recognize that regularly lashing out at or in front of your kids isn't par for the parenting course. It can do some very real damage to their psyches, says psychologist Matthew McKay, Ph.D., a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA, and coauthor of When Anger Hurts Your Kids. "Studies have shown that parents who express a lot of anger in front of their kids end up with less empathetic children. These kids are more aggressive and more depressed than peers from calmer families, and they perform worse in school. Anger has a way of undermining a kid's ability to adapt to the world," McKay says.
Gulp. And the younger the kid, the bigger the impact, experts say. "When children are little, you're their universe," says psychologist Robert Puff, Ph.D., author of Anger Work: How to Express Your Anger and Still Be Kind. "When you get angry, their world is shaken. By the time they get older, they have friends and other people in their lives to turn to, and that minimizes the impact." Also worth noting: The occasional, nonabusive freak-out is generally much less damaging than regular fireworks, which send a child the message that he or she is not safe and that there's something wrong with him, says McKay.
That said, kids can actually learn an important lesson from seeing you lose your temper and then regain your cool. "This provides an opportunity to show kids that we all get angry, but what really counts is how we repair things afterward," says McKay. Here, the step-by-steps for doing just that.
When You Shriek at Your Kids
Real-mom meltdown: When Jennifer*, of Huntington Beach, CA, went to visit Disneyland with her three kids, she didn't realize the "happiest place on Earth" would be the setting for one of her ugliest parenting moments. "It was a big outing for us, and the park was very hot and crowded that day," she recalls. "Two of my kids have cystic fibrosis and could use a special pass to bypass the lines. But my 13-year-old went and lost his. Out of nowhere, I yelled, 'You've got to be bleeping kidding me. What the hell is wrong with you?' Immediately, my son started to cry. He had never heard me swear or be so mean to him, and he was devastated. Everyone standing around us was looking at me in disgust. I had to keep apologizing. Tears were streaming down my face because I had obviously hurt him so much."
A University of New Hampshire study found that 90 percent of parents admitted to having hollered at their children, ages 2 to 12, within the course of a year (the other 10 percent must have either been angels or had selective memories).
To avoid a scream-fest, try this trick: In that white-hot moment of anger, visualize your child as a baby, says Sandra P. Thomas, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and coauthor of Use Your Anger: A Woman's Guide to Empowerment. "Older kids and teens are not adorable like babies, and sometimes they can be very obnoxious," she explains. "When you remember them as the babies they once were, that can do some good."
So can taking a break. "If you're able, take a time-out and walk into another room, even if it's just for a minute or two," says psychologist Laura J. Petracek, Ph.D., author of The Anger Workbook for Women. The key here is getting some literal distance from the situation and recovering your sense of calm.
If your anger has already boiled over, the most important thing now is to own up to what you've done wrong. Don't give in to the temptation to blame your child for triggering your outburst. "Say, 'I am very disappointed at your carelessness, but I shouldn't have yelled like that. It was wrong for me to lose it in that way, and I'm very sorry,' " advises Thomas. (Tip: Don't overdo the apology — if you dwell on it, it can make a kid feel as if he's truly been victimized.) Then promise that you will try your best not to do it again, comfort your child as needed, and move on.
Next: How to Handle a Fight With Your Spouse