If you've found yourself shrieking at your child — and regretting it — this advice is for you.
When You Spar With Your Spouse
Real-mom meltdown: Angie*, of Seattle, says life has been particularly stressful since her husband lost his job — and their arguments sometimes play out in front of daughter Lexi, age 3. "Just last night, I was yelling at him for not cleaning the house," she confesses. "Lexi came over, tugged on my shirt, and said, 'Be nice to Daddy.' The look in her eyes was one of terror; it stopped me in my tracks. We eventually made up and tried to assure her that Mommy and Daddy still loved each other, but I don't know if she bought it."
It can be devastating for a child to see her parents get furious with each other, warns Charles Spielberger, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in the study of anger at the University of South Florida. It's important to circle back quickly and do damage control. Don't try to explain the situation away by reciting a laundry list of ways in which your spouse provoked you — this will only further embroil your children in the drama and stress. "Instead, you might say, 'I was really mad at your dad earlier. We've talked about it, and we're working it out. People who live together get angry sometimes. We're sorry for yelling. We still love each other,' " Thomas recommends. Even if you still want to throttle your spouse, telling your kids you are smoothing things over will help ease their fears and make them feel more secure.
If you can, emphasize what you'll do differently next time, says Jerry Deffenbacher, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Colorado State University, who studies anger issues; this will help a child learn from the experience. For instance: "I was mad that your dad burned the garlic bread, but I apologize; I shouldn't have shouted at him like that. I was frazzled from a really hard day. Next time, we'll remember to set the kitchen timer when we use the oven."
Keep further comments to a minimum. Overexplain yourself, and you could wind up turning your kid into a mediator or therapist, cautions Puff. There's no need to drag her even deeper into your drama.
When You Argue With a Stranger
Real-mom meltdown: While Fiona*, of Detroit, was buckling her youngest son into his car seat after a trip to a bakery, an older driver pulled up near her and began honking. "He was screaming, 'Close your f— door!' without having given me any warning that I was blocking his spot. I raged right back, 'Can't you see I'm putting my baby in his car seat, you $%*#@?!' My tween in the backseat was pretty rattled by my outburst, and I felt horrible about it."
Your first instinct might be to apologize to your kids for having gotten mad — but don't. Everyone gets angry, so you shouldn't be sorry for having experienced this emotion. (This is especially important if you have daughters — girls from a young age are told they shouldn't show anger, says Puff, encouraging them to bottle up their feelings.)
Instead, tell the kids what set you off. Explains McKay: "You might say, 'That man said something that really hurt my feelings, and I got very upset.' " Next, apologize for how you expressed your anger. "Make sure they know that swearing — or whatever you did — was not the appropriate reaction," says Thomas. "Emphasize that you would never want them to act that way." Also say you are sorry if your outburst scared or embarrassed them. (Let's face it — it probably did.) Explain that you let your emotions get the best of you, and that you'll handle it better next time. And then comes the real challenge: making sure that you do.
Short-Circuiting Your Anger
To keep your cool going forward, follow these ground rules:
Ask the right question When a child is being difficult and your temper is about to flare, follow this advice from McKay: Instead of thinking, Why is he doing this to me?, focus on the child; he's probably acting out for a reason. Is he hungry, bored, tired, or in need of attention? Try to meet his need instead of letting your anger get the best of you.
Keep an anger journal that documents when you lose your cool. "Look for patterns — what time of day do you get angriest? Under what circumstances?" advises Deffenbacher. "Once you identify those anger 'flash points' in your life, brainstorm ways to minimize them." You can even get your kids in on the act: Say, "It irritates me when you ignore your chores — how can we make this a better situation?" By giving your kids a voice, you're empowering them to be part of the solution.
Minimize marriage spats "In a calm moment, you and your spouse should agree to handle your next argument differently," Deffenbacher says. "Give yourselves permission to walk away if you're getting too angry in front of the kids. Develop a code word for when you are getting really mad, and let that signal that you'll discuss the issue later, in private, when you're calmer."
Talk through your emotions out loud when you're with your kids and a stranger annoys you. "Say, 'Wow, that person just cut me off — how rude! But maybe there's an emergency she had to deal with, or she just didn't see me. Whatever the case, I'm not going to let it ruin my day,' " recommends Deffenbacher. By doing this, you're modeling how to handle life's everyday frustrations — and how to control your anger before it controls you.
Do You Have an Anger-Management Issue?
Could you be past "hot-tempered" and into the realm of needing professional help? Jerry Deffenbacher, Ph.D., shares warning signs:
- You lose your temper several times a week, even daily
- Your anger is causing problems in your relationship with your spouse or your kids
- When angry, you engage in dysfunctional behaviors such as drinking too much
If this sounds all too familiar, ask your doctor or religious leader for a reference to a counselor, or consult these anger-management resources:
The Anger Management Sourcebook, by Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D., and Melissa Hallmark Kerr
- The National Anger Management Association (namass.org), a website that provides a state-by-state directory of trained therapists.