Calming Myself When My Child Is Angry With Me, And I’m Angry With My Child

Larissa Dann

Parent anger. I teach parenting to groups of parents, I’ve listened to parents’ stories on helplines, I’ve read parents’ pleas for ideas on Facebook pages. A common thread of discussion is ‘How do I deal with my anger? How do I stop the yelling?’

I am passionate about a particular peaceful approach to being a parent, because I have a structure that helps me be a better parent. Over and over again, I hear from parents who say they yell less and have a calmer household, after implementing the skills of peaceful parenting (via Parent Effectiveness Training, PET).

And yet, I am human.

I am no saint when it comes to being a parent. I recall a radio announcer, with a very young child the same age as mine, saying ‘I gave my child ‘that look’ . . . you know, ‘that look’ when you’re beyond patience?’ And I knew. I knew that look, because I had bestowed it upon my son. More than once.

A True Story Of Dealing With My Anger Towards My Child, And Saving Our Relationship.

Background

My then twelve-year-old son and I are under enormous stress because of outside factors, and neither of us is dealing well with the pressure.

My son says something to me that I find highly objectionable and, perhaps, even rude. I am so tense that I ignore my learned parenting skills, and go straight into my inherited, default, parenting reaction.

Predictably, the situation gets out of hand.

The Story

Here we are. My son and me, arguing, a storm of emotion. Even as hurtful words thunder out of my mouth, a tiny part of my thinking brain puts the brakes on some of the more painful strikes I am tempted to throw forth.

I question myself. I am supposed to be the adult. I am supposed to have some wisdom. I am supposed to know how to communicate respectfully, how to listen. I teach other parents how to build strong relationships with their children. What am I doing? Why am I so inflamed right now?

My son flees to his room. He slams his door shut, and I hear him throw himself onto his bed, sobbing. I just want to walk out of the house, loudly, stamp down the street, and escape it all.

I am angry. But anger is just the tip of the ‘feelings iceberg’. So I acknowledge to myself that I am hurt by his words, his actions.

Still, I am frustrated beyond my own endurance.

Then I think of him.

Who ‘Owns The Problem’?

I visualise a deceptively simple parenting model. Thomas Gordon’s ‘Behaviour Window’ ™, incorporating ‘Problem Ownership’, is a rectangle divided into four areas. Can this model help me respond to my son’s distress, and mine?

Firstly, I have to ask myself – who’s got the problem here (because we definitely have a problem!). Does my son ‘own the problem’, or me, or is it a problem we share?

Once I’ve worked that out, I will have a guide as to what to do next.

Here’s how I try to put the model into practice, in this time of strong emotion and conflict.

The way I feel at the moment, I own 99% of the problem. I feel wronged by his outburst. I want him to know just how much he has hurt me. My face is red, my heart is thumping. I have found his behaviour to be totally unacceptable. I have taken his yelling, his words, very personally.

However.

When I hear my son weeping through the closed door I realise that he, too, has a problem. His behaviour is signalling that although he is angry, he is also very unhappy. He is finding my behaviour unacceptable – perhaps even frightening. In fact, if I were in a more rational frame of mind, I’d recognise that this was very unusual behaviour for him. I’d be wondering what had happened in his day to cause this outburst.

At this point, though, my emotional self outdistances my rational self by a country mile. I cling grimly to the Behaviour Window for some perspective.

Who owns the problem?

Choosing How To Respond

The beauty of the ‘problem ownership’ model is that I have a guide to choosing how I respond.

If I think that my unmet needs (my problem) takes precedence, then I could be assertive, and use an ‘I-Message’. I could say to my son ‘I feel hurt and frustrated by your attitude right now’.

Or.

If I think that resolving his unmet need (his problem) at this point will be more helpful, then I could begin to Active Listen, to hear his feelings. ‘You felt really upset with what I said just now . . .’

What would you do?

My Choice

I realised that if I faced my son and asserted my needs when he was angry with me, it would be like talking to a brick wall. And he’d be building that wall between us fast and furious, three layers thick. Definitely not conducive to a warm relationship!

Instead, somehow I needed to help him bring down that wall, brick by brick. That way, our understanding and our relationship would be two-way, and we could see, hear and understand each other.

Remember, my emotions are still very heightened at this point. However, while I am considering my next step, I am not reacting. I am responding. Through gritted teeth, I realise that I really need to try and listen to my boy. Even though this is the last thing I world I feel like doing.

What Happened.

I knock, wait, and walk into his room

Am I calm? Well, no. Outwardly, perhaps, but inside I am still raging.

Am I feeling empathic and accepting? Nah ah. I am fed up to my eyeballs.

But this is my stuff.

I see, lying in front of me, a very distressed human being - my nearly teenage son.

Still, my heart is hard, and focused on me, and my feelings. I have been hurt, deeply.

I stand at the base of the bed, my arms folded, and sigh inwardly. Then, literally, I go through the motions of Active Listening. There is no mirroring of his emotion or distress in my tone of voice or actions. Just words.

‘I’ve really upset you with what I’ve said’.

To my astonishment, he responds.

‘Yes’.

‘I’ve hurt you by saying and doing what I did’

He responds again, looking at me with pain and confusion through red-rimmed eyes.

As I go through the motions of Active Listening, I discover I am becoming more accepting, more understanding, more empathic. My rage subsides, replaced by understanding and empathy. My tone of voice and gestures reflect my son’s emotions. I uncross my arms, move towards him and sit by his bed.

I truly begin to see things from his point of view, and both he and I are calm and close again. I apologise, and so does he.

Our relationship, which had been temporarily rent apart, feels healed and warm.

My Discovery

By beginning the process of Active Listening, even when I was not accepting of his behaviour, I changed the dynamics of the situation. I began the process of both dealing with my anger, and helping him in his anger and distress.

 

Very quickly, I became accepting of him. And of me.

 

Why Did This Work?

 

To use Daniel Siegel’s terminology, we had both ‘flipped our lids’ with overwhelming emotion, disguised as anger. I think that by listening to my son, our ‘upstairs brain’ kicked in to soothe the ‘downstairs brain’.

 

By talking about emotions, by naming feelings, both my child and I became calm. I wonder whether this is a similar effect to smiling when we feel down, or changing our body posture, in order to feel better.

 

When I tried deciding who owns the problem, then what I should do, I did not react immediately. Instead, I took some time (be it miniscule) and then responded.

 

Apologising to my son meant I acknowledged my part in the argument, and modelled self-responsibility.

 

My Learning

 

Listening, when I least wanted to listen, helped calm me, and to understand both my child, and myself. Having a visual model in my head, such as the Behaviour Window, gave me a guide in the moment, helping me be the grown-up in a situation.

 

Overarching all was my desire to nurture a warm, close, loving and respectful relationship with my child. After all, it is our relationship that will sustain us, over life.

 

Further reading on anger in parents and children:

Honesty, Anger and Parenting Dr Laura Markham

10 Tips to Help Your Child With Anger Dr Laura Markham

Anger: Further Resources. Kidsmatter.

Anger: Suggestions for Families. Kidsmatter.

 

Image: Shutterstock

 

First published 18 November 2017

© Larissa Dann. 2017.

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