Anger Management 101
By Holly Bridges, executive director
Usually the first thing that happens is the clenching of the jaw. You clamp your teeth together. Then your pulse rate speeds up. Your cheeks get hot and the skin flushes. This is anger. And it’s about to erupt all over your kid.
The anatomy of an explosion is something Amity Hume Grimes, M.A., R.N., a parent educator, knows intimately. Not just because she’s a parent herself. “I know what it’s like to want to throttle my children,” she says brightly. But also because she’s taught parenting and anger-management classes to hundreds of caregivers. She has seen their relief when they can open up, confide, find nonjudgmental support, and assemble a tool kit for what is the hardest job in the world, especially when you’re going it mostly alone—without the village, literally, our forebears had to raise a child.
The physical prelude to an anger eruption gets revved up by mind-flares, Amity notes. “Anger-intensifying thoughts,” is what they’re called. These intrusive amplifiers are things like, “He’s always spilling his milk.” “I’ve told you a thousand times.” “You’re always such a slob/klutz/devil.” “He’s trying to get me.” “She’s doing this on purpose to manipulate me.” “I can’t take this.”
Swearing, by the way, intensifies anger.
What parents can do at this critical point, says Amity, is swap these intensifying thoughts for realistic views. Stop exaggerating. It’s not “always.” It’s sometimes. You haven’t told him a thousand times. Maybe just five. The child’s behavior is normal for his age. He’s not out to get you. He’s just acting his age.
Replace the anger-revving thoughts, too, with calming thoughts. “I can handle this.” “I’m the grownup here and better at controlling my emotions.”
Taking a few deep breaths is remarkably effective at calming yourself. Breathing defuses. Counting to 10 also helps. It’s not necessarily the counting itself (Amity says her grandmother used to recite the books of the Bible to calm down). “You’re not just biding time,” she says, “you’re occupying your brain. You’re interrupting the circuits,” giving the derailed brain a chance to find center again.
(In Picture Alternatives’ animated production “The Choice,” you see this entire dynamic play out in just over two minutes.) http://picturealternatives.org/showcase/
I asked Amity if walking away helps. Depends, she said. Is your child safe? That’s the prime consideration. If she is, you can tell your child, “I’m angry. I need to take time to calm down.” Then you can shut yourself in the bathroom, and of course the child will be on the other side of the door knocking and calling to you.
“Humor is also important. It gives you perspective. It’s like, ‘Here is a four-year-old who has a grown woman cowering in the bathroom!’”
How do parents’ anger and their choices to discipline or punish or their threats reverberate for the rest of a child’s life? You might be surprised to learn what a powerful effect they have. “Discipline” and “punish,” crucially, are not the same thing. Stay tuned, and we’ll tackle these in the next blog post.
Meanwhile, here’s a highly recommended book: When Anger Hurts Your Kids: A Parent’s Guide by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, Kim Paleg, Dana Landis.