When Mom Has a Temper Tantrum
By Melanie Howard
Each month, my five-year-old son's kindergarten class compiles a "book of
days," in which the children share their daily home experiences with one another. The
next month, the book gets circulated to all the parents. Imagine my chagrin when James
brought last month's book home, and therebetween "Mollie and her mom made
brownies" and "Jeremy helped his dad take out the trash"was
"James's mom was angry with him this morning." My temper, in writing, laminated
and distributed for all the world to see.
Worse yet, I realized that almost all our recent mornings had degenerated into Mommy
screamathons over seemingly minor mattersdawdling, misplaced gloves, sibling
bickering. I felt terrible, and obviously James did, too. How could we break this angry
"Yelling is usually a sign that a parent has no strategy," says Thomas
Phelan, a clinical psychologist in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and the author of the popular
1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 (Child Management, Inc.). At a loss
for what to do, moms may resort to yelling out of anger or frustration. But the end result
is that parents feel guilty and children get the emotional message that they are bad.
It's because we love our children so dearly that they are able to provoke such strong
feelings of anger in us, according to Nancy Samalin, a New York Citybased parent
educator and the author of Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma (Penguin Paperbacks). But
that doesn't make expressing that anger through hollering or put-downs appropriateor
effective. Samalin, who has conducted workshops for parents of toddlers through teens for
more than 25 years, says the key is to feel and acknowledge your emotions but not let them
control you and make you act irrationally.
Samalin and Phelan recommend drawing on these following strategies when your kids are
driving you up the wall:
- Exit or wait. When you feel your anger getting the better of you, briefly
withdraw from the situation until you calm down, Samalin writes in Love and Anger. Phelan
agrees: He suggests stepping out of the room, counting to ten, going to your bedroom, and
closing the doorwhatever it takes to restore your cool.
- "I," not "you." Avoid attacking your child with
"you" statements"You are such a slob!" or "You'll never
learn." Instead, think in terms of "I": "I don't like picking clothes
up off your floor every day" or "I get upset when we're not on time." These
are less hurtful and inflammatory.
- Put it in writing. If you are too angry to speak, don't. If your child is old
enough to read, express your feelings in writing. Sometimes just the time required to find
pen and paper will help you to cool off.
- Stay in the present. When your child makes you angry, don't work yourself into a
tizzy by listing every offense he has committed in the past week and is likely to commit
in the future. Stick to the issue at hand.
- Restore good feelings. When you do lose it, reconnect with your child as soon as
possible. That may mean saying you're sorry and giving a hug and kiss to a younger child.
For an older child, you may want to offer an explanation of why you were angry along with
an apology. Don't worry that apologizing will diminish your authorityit won't. It
shows your child that you respect him and teaches him that everyone can be wrong
- Recognize what the problem is. Is it really your child's messy room? Or are you
sleep-deprived? Feeling overwhelmed at work? Mad at your husband or mother or boss? Be
aware of when you are more vulnerable to anger and resist the urge to transfer negative
feelings to your child.
- Make yourselfand all family membersaccountable for lashing out.
Institute a "no losing it" rule to make kids and parents aware of the times they
go ballistic. But do it with a light touch. For instance, make a chart and tack on a
sticker when one of you has an outburst. If one family member is accumulating a lot of
stickers, it's time to talk about it.
- Carry a tape recorder. When you feel yourself about to blow, turn it on. If you
explode anyway, play back the tape and imagine yourself as the child on the receiving end.
- Use cognitive therapy. This technique is sometimes used to calm fearful fliers.
Analyze your thoughts and put them in perspectiveor, as Phelan puts it,
"deawfulize" the situation. (Fliers learn that their fear is of crashing, not
flying. And since crashing is unlikely, their fear is not reasonable.) Ask
yourselfwhen your children are fighting, sayif it's really that horrible.
Think of the situation as aggravating but normal behavior that merits a calm, rational
Melanie Howard is a writer and a mother of two. She lives in
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