Working with our stress and anger as parents

When faced with the stresses of family life we can sometimes feel overwhelmed and alone. It can feel like we really have not had sufficient training or preparation for being a parent (or care giver). Even though these days there are a number of courses and lots of advice available about different ways to parent, we cannot seem to remember this information in moments when we feel most challenged by our child or children. We seem to lose our ability to parent creatively just when we need it most.

In these times anger and other strong emotions may surface. Often parents have not experienced anger, frustration or a sense of powerlessness so intensely before they had children. These feelings can lead to reacting to our children with behaviour we regret afterwards when we have calmed down. We can then be ridden with guilt about the way we have behaved. (It maybe that you can stop yourself from venting on your child but the internal feelings of frustration are becoming overwhelming.) This can become a painful and constant cycle. We may be ashamed to let anyone know about how distressed we are feeling as a parent and how we are treating our children when they really push our buttons. We may start thinking we are the only “monster parent” in the world.

There is a way forward and the first thing we have to do is be kinder to ourselves. If we are hard on ourselves and expect our behaviour to be perfect we will increase our tension. Change takes time and practice. We then need to know that when our tension is high we have to give up parenting and walk away from our child. This is not so easy to do because the energy of the anger or frustration can drive us toward the child. We become desperate about sorting out the child’s behaviour.

After all we think we are meant to be the one in control. Usually we are feeling very small ourselves at this point. We need to let ourselves off the “being the perfect parent hook” and move away from the child/children (as long as the children are safe). If we have a small baby we need to put the baby safely in their cot.

We need to take care of ourselves and take a breath, have a drink of water or do whatever it is that decreases our tension. It can be very helpful to ring a friend or kind family member and let them know you need support. If we are feeling very frustrated we might need to safely release our physical energy.

We all have different stress triggers with our children. For some of us it the defiant way our child looks at us, or the dismissive way a teenager talks to us. For other parents it can be a time of day that is the most difficult like bedtimes or the morning routine. It may be lifestyle factors. The particular personality of one child might be very difficult for us to understand even though we get on with all our other children. We may have a child with extra challenges.

Sometimes the behaviour of the child reminds us of a person in our past who has not treated us well. It is worth taking the time when we are feeling less tense to examine what our particular triggers are. If this is too hard to do on your own ask help from someone you trust or from an appropriate professional.

Over time we can work out our early warning signs- signs of tension in our body that indicate that we are winding up, for example a headache or a tight jaw. There may be thought patterns that increase our tension like telling ourselves we are failing or that if we don’t get this behaviour changed the child will be a failure in life. With practice we can catch ourselves before our tension gets too high and take action.

Sometimes there are factors in our life that we cannot change. Just identifying this can help us.

It is worth reminding ourselves that other parents are experiencing difficulties too. Support is needed to do this work so seek help if you need to and as early as possible. With help parents I have worked with, learn what their triggers are and what actions to take at different levels of tension. They report that their children’s behaviour changes because they feel calmer and can solve parenting problems creatively.

Cushla Clark
Parent Counsellor and Group Facilitator