The Gift of Anger in Awareness

October 13th, 2010 by Dionna | 21 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, Guest Posts, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity, Strive for Balance

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Perhaps my greatest struggle as a parent has been to teach myself a different way of being angry. I want to be able simply to feel angry without either repressing it — which in the past has resulted in episodes of depression — or expressing it — which typically takes the form of yelling. I grew up in a family of yellers, so there should be no surprise either that I grew up to be one myself, or that change is not coming easily. However, with a two-year-old Critter in my care, the need for me to change is urgent.

Our little ones need us to be able to handle our anger for two reasons. First, anger can be scary. We are the greatest source of security to our children, and so it is frightening to them to see us out of control. Second, anger is inevitable. Though I have often wished and fantasized otherwise, we are going to get angry. Our children are going to get angry. And, in fact, in the face of frustration, injustice, or loss, it is normal and healthy to get angry. And so showing our children that we can be even bigger than our anger is one of the most powerful gifts we can give to our children.

A few simple practices based in self-awareness have helped me to anticipate and cope with my anger. I offer them in the hopes that some of them will resonate with you.

Awareness of my mood

In those moments of weakness when I’ve yelled at the Critter, it has had little to do with his behavior and everything to do with my mood. Like everyone else, I’m responsible for far too much: in addition to caring for the Critter, there’s my relationship with my husband, my various freelancing jobs, my personal writing projects, and our home, among other things. I am far more often exhausted and stressed out than not. When my exhaustion and stress take the form of desperation or exaggerated self-pity — How am I ever going to get this all done? Why do I always have to be in charge of everything around here? — I take notice, because I know that in such moods, I am easily angered. These are the times to take it easy: get outside, go for a run, order pizza for dinner.

Awareness of the situation

Naptime, brushing the Critter’s teeth, getting ready for preschool or an outing: these are situations in which my stress can spiral out of control, especially if I’m under a time constraint or, even worse, already running late. If I’m in a cranky mood, I go into these situations reminding myself that I am likely to get angry, and I tell myself not to listen to myself.

Awareness in anger

I tell myself not to listen to myself, because in anger, my thoughts are completely untrustworthy. They tend to be self-serving — and, unfortunately, so, so seductive! Thus I strive to turn my attention away from my (untrue) thoughts about how I am the only one who ever does anything about the mess around here and anyway why am I always the one stuck at home alone with the kid (in my anger, the Critter often becomes “the kid” whom I am “stuck” with) … and instead I place my awareness in my body and on my breath. If necessary, I count my breaths to maintain my focus on them. In their steadiness, I find my own steadiness and can even experience my anger less personally, as a wild energy that I can ride like a skilled swimmer in the open sea. Eventually, the energy dissolves. Like everything else in the world, anger is impermanent.

Awareness of responsibility

If I do yell at the Critter, I alone am responsible. He didn’t “make” me angry; nobody can. And so I apologize; for example, “Mommy is sorry. Mommy shouldn’t yell. And [the Critter] shouldn’t [do whatever he was doing]. Both of us need to do better.”

Also, if I find myself apologizing too often, it’s a sign that something else needs to be taken care of. Usually, it means that I’ve taken on too many obligations. I re-examine all the agreements I’ve made with myself, my clients, my husband, and etc., and I renegotiate one or more of them, or I let something go.

Awareness of imperfection

I love Where the Wild Things Are for all the usual reasons, including its poetry, expansive illustrations, and great sympathy for Max and his difficulties. But I also love it for its portrayal of the relationship between Max and his off-stage mother, who is (as you may or may not have noticed) the first to yell. Despite that, and despite her subjecting him to the time-out that he deals with so imaginatively, Max knows that she loves him “best of all.” If I need to be a perfect mama in order to be a beloved mama, I should just give up now, because perfect is never going to happen.

Awareness in stillness

These practices of awareness are, for me, grounded in a regular meditation practice. For example, I am able to find my breath in anger because I have a lot of practice following it in meditation. Even if you don’t have a contemplative practice, such as meditation or prayer, try to give yourself a few moments of stillness every day. Some time not to think, not to plan, not to worry, but simply to be and to breathe — how could it not help?

What strategies have you used to cope with your anger?
In what ways have you intentionally brought awareness to your negative emotions as a parent?
How have such healthy methods of handling anger and other negative emotions affected your relationship with your child?

Photo credit: hyperorbit


I am proud to host a guest post today from Rachael. Rachael is mama to the two-year-old Critter, the wife of an artist, a poet, and a work-at-home freelance editor and writer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and blogs at The Variegated Life.

21 Responses to:
"The Gift of Anger in Awareness"

  1. Joy

    Yoga. Im bipolar, and I am a single mother of three, and I HAVE to do my Yoga, daily. It makes a HUGE difference. I also take a daily bike ride, which revs up my endorphins (which make me happy, and makes me feel sexy, which also makes me happy) and I take my vitamins. Research has shown that even being a little deficient is enough to make a difference. :)

    Thank you for posting this article. It was right when I needed it! :)

    • Rachael   RachaelNevins

      Just last night one of my SILs said that her 17-yo bipolar niece is learning that going for a run is just about a surefire way to help her feel better when she’s unsettled. Between her story and yours (though I’m not bipolar myself), I’m convinced that I should think of my twice-weekly run as more a necessity than an indulgence, especially as we approach the winter months.

  2. TrueRealMommy   TrueRealMommy

    Anger and yelling are my weakspot. I am quick to both. Just yesterday I yelled out to L2 for grabbing and spilling a cup of L1’s tea. Of course, this startled him and made him spill more, and I foolishly got angry for him spilling more. I jumped up before realizing he wasn’t defying me, I was scaring the daylights out of him! I grabbed him up, apologizing and snuggling. Even L1 reminds me: “Momma! Gentle words!”

    I loved a line in the Where the Wild Things Are movie: Max is the king, and one of the monsters GRRS and says she will EAT HIM UP! He responds in kind, and she shirks back: “When I say ‘GRRR! I WILL EAT YOU UP’ you aren’t supposed to yell at me back! You are supposed to say ‘Ok, you can eat me. I love you, so if that is what makes you happy, it makes me happy.”

    Since then it has helped me to think when responding to my boys. Am I responding to my feelings, or their need for my love?

  3. SheChanges   SheChanges

    Brava! Reading this post was like drinking a tall glass of water. It was at once validating and a call to action. I felt your humanness and in that, I accessed my own. And then saw my ability to see myself more compassionately instead of the wretched soul I can see when I “go there” in “those moments”. Thank you for keeping it real, for sharing your story, and for offering some truly valuable insights and perspectives that I can use (with myself and with the busy, high-achieving working moms I work with in my practice. Well done!

  4. Laura

    I often have to apologize to my kids AND ask for forgivness. We are trying to teach them to have a “forgiving heart” and not hold grudges like, ahem, their parents. *whistles innocently* Have you ever had to ask a toddler for forgivness? Most humbling thing EVER.

  5. Every so often I just need to murder something. Like a salad spinner or a laundry basket or a diaper pail.

    My husband thinks I’m bonkers because his anger never gets even close to out of hand. But I grew up in a very angry house where yelling and angry outbursts were a ridiculously normal part of everyone’s day. And I’m trying to do better. Much better. And succeeding. It’s hard to build a new normal, though.

    What works for me is definately, like you say, awareness. There’s that thing when we’re trying to get all the kids packed up and into the van to go somewhere and do something fun and all of the sudden my husband and I find we’re growling and barking at eachother because we can’t get mad at the babies, right? Even though they are hiding their shoes and practicing other forms of passive resistance that are driving us bonkers, so logically, we should turn on eachother. Right?

    Whenever we stop and acknowledge that we’re doing that it’s suddenly okay, and we’re not mad at eachother anymore. Because awareness breaks patterns.

    Also, self-forgiveness is key. When my husband asks for an explanation as to why he found the murdered remains of a salad spinner sticking out of the garbage cans I simply explain that it made me angry, so I murdered it, and I feel much better, thankyou. And I applaud myself for lashing out at something defenseless instead of someone defenseless and I just buy another salad spinner and wish it better luck than the last one.

    • Rachael   RachaelNevins

      I love the way you put it, that “awareness breaks patterns.” I’m working so hard now not to be so growly so often with my husband, and that’s proving to be so much more difficult to do — perhaps because my husband is hardly as vulnerable as my little guy. I’m going to try doing what you do: acknowledge what I’m doing when I see myself lashing out (or just grouching out) at him, to try to break the pattern. Thanks!

  6. Those are great points on becoming aware of anger. I can relate to pretty much everything. There are definitely know that my mood has everything to do with it also.

    There are times though when anger is there for a purpose. Anger can let us know a boundary was crossed in our lives. This does not mean we need to act out by yelling or repress it. But can be a great way to look at what is causing the anger so we can deal with the problem and make it better.

    This has happened several times in my life. When I recognize the anger is being triggered by something I can analyze what is triggering the anger and find a solution.

  7. MomAgain@40   karentoittoit

    Great post! Awareness is such an important way to deal with anger!
    Thanks for the tips!

  8. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly   KateWicker

    Excellent post and one we need. I’ve been guilty of suppressing my anger and then feeling depressed and then just exploding it. Awareness has helped me to do as you wrote and not repress it or express it in an unhealthy manner. Personally, prayer has helped a lot, too.

    Thanks for the helpful, honest post.

  9. Krista   krissyfair

    So true, we totally have to teach our kids that it’s ok to be angry, but you still have to behave in an appropriate way while you are.

    One of my goals is also to try to teach my little ones how useful anger can be as a source of strength and an impetus for action. I want them to see that if I see something that makes me angry, I use that to make a change. For instance if I see someone being mistreated, I get angry, that gives me the courage to stick up for them. And that’s an anger expression I definitely hope my kids will pick up!

  10. Rachael   RachaelNevins

    Thanks for all the comments! I wanted to add that I’m now reading chapter twelve of Playful Parenting, “Accept Strong Feelings (Theirs and Yours),” and I’m really liking what Dr. Cohen has to say on the subject. (But, what don’t I like about what he has to say about anything?) I’m noticing, though, that he talks about expressing feelings vs. holding them in, and so I just wanted to say that I first got the idea that there might be a difference between expressing a feeling and feeling a feeling from the work of Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who writes about Buddhism and psychotherapy. But it seems to me that the kind of expression of feelings that Dr. Cohen is writing about — crying in particular — is a way of feeling feelings. This sentence jumps out at me: “Most experts in childhood emotions agree that anger covers up other, more vulnerable feelings, such as pain and loss and fear” (p. 221). How often is my yelling a way of trying not to feel (by spitting out or ejecting) my anger, which is itself a cover for grief or fear? I’d say pretty often, maybe nearly always? Probably I’d do better just to have a good cry?

  11. Thank you for this! I definitely have issues with anger, mostly towards my kids (and myself), unfortunately. I grew up in a house where my parents very rarely raised voices or yelled, especially towards me, and I honestly don’t know what to do with it, sometimes! My house is so much LOUDER and more chaotic that my childhood home (only child versus three kids, ha) and that has something to do with it, obviously. Which is good to remember!

    My biggest other trigger is running late, and trying to get my three kids out of the house when we need to be somewhere on a schedule. I procrastinate getting started on getting us all ready, then lose it because nobody is doing what I think they should be doing to help (they are 2 and 4, um, what do I expect???) It is so SO easy to listen and act on my own angry thoughts in the moment instead of seeing the real picture.

    I will definitely work on the breathing thing! And also planning ahead & starting earlier to get us all out the door with a lower stress level. Geesh.

  12. I’m finding anger and yelling to be a big issue these days. With so much time on my own with 4yo Princess, managing the home and finances, trying to find the time for “me” projects and almost no onther adult company I m feeling the weight. I get out and exercise when I can, but this isn’t often possible, but it does make a difference when it happens.

  13. Juliea Paige   gypsyjewels

    I was given the link the this article from a friend on facebook after confessing that I am dealing with some real issues that have been prevalent through my life…but I am feeling like once again I am out of control and my rage has taken over. It’s really frustrating because I feel like I am someone who knows what’s up. I’m in touch with my feelings and why it is that I am this person – some of it I believe is a mental disorder, I have actually been looking into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because my childhood was extremely traumatic which would explain why I react the ways that I do and why I have feeling flashbacks. It’s LAME though. I do NOT want to be like this in front of my children. When I am not in control I begin to hate myself and then it truly becomes this destructive cycle. I am going to take some of your advice and try some meditation and yoga. I’ve GOT to do something….

    • Rachael   RachaelNevins

      My heart is with you, Juliea. I agree with Trevor that anger often shows us that something deeper needs to be acknowledged and taken care of. It sounds like you are doing just that. I hope that the meditation and yoga help. Many best wishes.

  14. Sunra   mamajedisunra

    Awesome article! Thank you so much for adding insight to an issue I have been becoming more and more aware of myself. :) You ROCK!

  15. Olivia   OliviaStreaterL

    God I am LOVING this blog, it has all the issues I am facing daily! Of all of them, my battle with my own anger is the greatest! I would like to recommend a book my Thich Nath Hahn called Anger: Buddhist wisdom for cooling the flames. It transformed me.

    I am doing so much better than I would ever have done in my twenties (it is the irony of the gift of the babies that I lost before).

    My main focus is to make my home happy full of laughter and not angry.

    And yet, anger is still a daily battle – though not so much the great corrosive anger from before from PTSD and unhealed traumas. More the daily irritations of tiredness and stress.

    I do not know if I am doing ok or failing. I am certainly more angry than I would like to be, still.

    I still hope my sons will not say that they grew up in a family of yellers.

    One thing I DO know though… I am learning to be less angry with myself when I screw up.

    Trying to be a gentle parent is a fantastic thing. But if we are not careful it can become another rod to bang ourselves over the head with. Ironically…

  16. Alinda

    Great article about understanding the situation, but I just recently started thinking that maybe controlling anger is not that good after all.
    I am quite good at controlling it, but I just started feeeling I am being untrue about my feelings. With a 2,5 yo at home, experiencing a lot of anger outbursts herself, I am thinking that maybe I should allow myself to express anger and teach my kid what is it and how to deal with it, you know?
    Is it okay if we are angry inside, but calmly smile when we are running late? I know I am exagerratin a bit, but isn’t anger a message too?

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I do think it’s ok to let them know you are angry, but I think a lot of us also either 1) have unrealistic expectations of our kids, so we’re getting angry over stuff that is really age-appropriate and shouldn’t invoke such a strong response; and/or 2) have unhealthy ways of expressing our anger (yelling, hitting, love withdrawal, etc.).
      So instead of concentrating on showing how angry we can be all the time, I think more energy should be focused on owning our emotions and realizing that our children can’t MAKE us feel any which way. We choose to be angry. Maybe if we re-learn how to react to things, we’d all feel a lot better :) I’d recommend Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon for more on this line of thought.

    • Rachael   RachaelNevins

      I agree with Dionna. What I was trying to write about here is finding a middle ground between repressing our anger, as in your example of feeling angry inside but smiling outside, and expressing it, which, as Dionna points out, can be just as unhealthy. There is a way to just feel our feelings. It’s not easy, and I am by no means a master of it! But I think that by learning to do so, we can be authentic about our feelings with our children.

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