Losing Your Temper: Why Parents Blow It and How to Recover

Tracy is four. Her mother describes her as “attached to my hip.” Recently, during a morning that seemed even more hectic than usual, Barbara’s frustration level kept climbing. “It’s as if she was deliberately being worse, like she knew I had a lot to get done. She wouldn’t play by herself, she wouldn’t eat or wear whatever I put in front of her. She whined and whined unless I played with her and I just couldn’t stand it. Sure I yell at her sometimes, but never like this. I couldn’t believe how angry I was and the things I said. She started crying so hard she had trouble catching her breath. I felt awful. It really scared me. She’s only four. What had I done?”

Jim told his 9 year old son to stop picking on his little brother. When Michael didn’t listen, his dad warned him that he was heading for a time-out. But Michael ignored the warning and kept teasing his brother. “Go to your room! Now!” Michael refused and became increasingly defiant. “It’s not my fault. You always blame me. Billy never gets punished. I’m not going to my room and you can’t make me!” Jim couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He grabbed Michael by the arm and started dragging him up to his room. Michael kicked him and Jim lost it. He grabbed Michael by his shirt, lifted him right into the air, screamed into his face that he was going to learn to listen, and literally threw Michael onto his bed. A few minutes later, Jim was sitting in his chair, shaken, and listening to the frantic sobs coming from the bedroom.

Parents Do Lose Their Tempers

Books on child rearing contain many wonderful suggestions on how to deal with just about anything your child might do. Unfortunately, like the parents on TV sitcoms, the picture is always of a parent who calmly invokes some wonderful strategy that invariably works. The message continues to be that good parents don’t lose it. But that’s just not the way the real world works. We all lose our tempers. Getting angry is not synonymous with bad parenting. That only becomes true when “losing it” becomes a routine response to your child’s behavior rather than an exception.

Common Causes Of “Losing It”

  1. Stress: Yes, it IS becoming the excuse for everything, but the truth is that over the thirty years that I’ve worked with parents (or been one), I’ve never seen a more stressed out generation of parents. It’s a constant cry that there isn’t enough time for everyone’s needs to be met. Parents are frustrated, guilty, isolated, and overworked. The solution involves getting a clearer grip on your priorities, learning some personal stress-reduction techniques, and keeping your marriage (or significant relationship) strong. The latter is often overlooked as the key to a calmer life. The couple that talks more and makes love more often is much happier, more relaxed, and much less likely to boil over.

  2. Unrealistic expectations of children: It continually amazes me that the more we know about children, the more we expect them to be miniature adults. Children are, by definition, immature. Expect that and stop trying to “fix” your kids all the time. Children do not share your priorities about schedules, clean houses, and building for the future. They want to play and are most concerned about the next five minutes. They want your attention and approval. They want to experience a sense that you actually enjoy them. It’s easier to do that if you stop worrying so much about what they are going to be like when they grow up. Life is not linear. Your children will change in dramatic and unpredictable ways as they mature into adults. So adjust your expectations and you won’t get as angry.

  3. Personality “fit”: The compulsively clean parent with the messy child. The easy-going parent with the intense child. The hyper parent with the slow-moving child! All relationships are significantly influenced by how the two personalities mesh. When there are marked differences in styles, it poses a serious challenge to developing a successful relationship. Increased anger is a frequent byproduct. Suggestions: recognize the personality differences, learn to accept some of the clashes as inevitable results of the different styles and don’t take it so personally, try to have the parent who matches up better take more responsibility for managing that child.

  4. The feeling of powerlessness: Parents often come to me describing their child as running the house and not responding to any forms of discipline. A lot of screaming has been taking place. Let’s face it. Some children ARE more of a challenge. Often it does help to use a child psychologist as you would use a pediatrician, i.e., to periodically consult when you are stuck. But one of the key points to keep in mind is that you cannot control your child’s behavior. Admit that to your self and to your child. What you can control are the consequences your child will face and if you manage those consistently and appropriately, it will improve your child’s behavior over time. Often it requires extra patience with one approach rather than shifting strategies every few weeks.

What To Do After The Mt. Vesuvious Imitation

No matter how hard you try not to, occasionally you are going to blow up. When that happens, take a few deep breaths to regain your composure, quickly remind yourself that you are human, you make mistakes, and that you can accept responsibility for what you’ve done rather than beating up on yourself with guilt. Then comfort your child. Admit you made a mistake by getting so angry, remind her that getting angry doesn’t mean you don’t love her and, if she says it’s okay, you would like to give her a hug to show that love. Asking permission is helpful. You have just violated the child’s sense of safety in your relationship and exhibited a loss of control. The child may initially retaliate by rejecting your overtures for forgiveness. Asking permission to hug gives the child a sense of being respected again. Usually she’ll say yes and the tension will be broken.

Parents who lose it are often unsure what to do about completing a punishment. If it was a time-out and the child has already been in his room for several minutes, then you can say it’s taken care of. If the punishment involved the loss of some privilege (use of a bike, watching a TV show), then the child should still have to accept that consequence. The point is that losing your temper should not become identified as a viable punishment and a substitute for an appropriate one. You need to separate the two issues.

The Resiliency Of Children

Parents carry the aftereffects of most events longer than children. A child typically becomes engrossed with the next five minute segment of her life while you are still suffering indigestion from the last upsetting moment. If losing your temper takes place in the context of reasonable parental love and enjoyment of your child, then you have no reason to worry that you have harmed your son or daughter by occasionally losing it.

What to do after you’ve “lost it”?

  1. Regain your composure.

  2. Accept your very human error.

  3. Comfort your child:

    1. By admitting your mistake

    2. By expressing your love

    3. By asking permission to hug her