Apologies in advance as this is a long one – feel free to skim the headings, take what you like and leave the rest. We had an experience of anger management ourselves as a family last week with the tricky combination of my daughter’s typical 3-year-old boundary pushing, connection seeking and risk taking behaviours and my sometimes fiery tempered husband’s ‘in the zone: do not disturb’ headspace working from home on the living room sofa. Contributing factors could include breastfeeding my baby limiting my ability to give my daughter the undivided 1:1 attention she was seeking, rainy weather giving us all cabin fever and the cumulative pressure cooker effect of the whole family being together 24/7 for the past four months. I’ve decided to write about this topic because it got me thinking about how many other families with less coping resources and more stressors pressing on them than ours might have been experiencing and maybe struggling with anger during covid 19.
I’m also aware with my professional hat on of the barriers parents might have in seeking help for coping safely with anger. First, there’s stigma – the fear of being judged as a parent for not managing well enough, the old fashioned idea that people should wash their dirty laundry in private and not involve outsiders. There’s also the fear of social work involvement, child protection and children being taken into care if the anger problem is more serious. For those brave enough to seek help despite the stigma there may be the challenge from the system of where to ask. CAMHS may suggest parents seek help from Adult Mental Health services but then unless the GP mentions anxiety or depression in the referral, the referral might be rejected on the grounds that anger is not in itself a mental health problem. However – parents regularly expressing uncontrolled anger may lead to chronic and enduring mental health problems for children, particularly if this spills into emotional or physical abuse. For those who don’t meet mental health service criteria, they may try self-referral to social work services, or concerned nursery or teaching staff might make a referral. However, depending on the local threshold, the anger management problem may not be significant enough to access input and the stress while waiting for assessment may put strain on the family relationships. Locally there may be counselling available but what exactly is on offer for free may be variable. During Covid-19 where counselling services have been increasingly delivered online, that may help or hinder help seeking for anger management depending on people’s preferences. Ultimately if the anger issue is more serious, the pros of seeking help – and if necessary seeking someone to help find help like a GP – outweigh these barriers. For those who may be willing to read online but not access formal help though, I thought sharing what I know about anger as a professional and a parent could do some good.
Traffic light system
It can help to manage anger at home using a traffic light system
Green = everyone is calm, relaxed or happy – this is a good time to consider pro-active strategies to keep it that way
Amber = at least one family member is showing signs of irritation or frustration which could escalate or lead to others being impacted if no action is taken. Preventative strategies are now needed.
Red = at least one family member is about to or actually has lost their temper and has started to verbally or physically express their anger – action is needed now to de-escalate, contain emotions and limit the damage
Depending on the age of your children, it might be helpful to teach them the traffic light system for reporting feelings and ask them how they’re doing from time to time. It might also help to check in with your partner if you have one about how they’re feeling. Since covid-19, life has included a lot of change, to the point it may seem life has been turned upside down with the carpet pulled from under our feet – and we don’t know when we’ll have that carpet back where it was again either. So even the most emotionally stable among us likely has some amber moments, and even if you’re feeling green, it can feel good to know someone cares enough to check in.
Even if you don’t particularly identify with feeling angry at this point in your life and nobody else in your home does either, it can still be helpful to consider some pro-active strategies to keep you all safe and well. Taking a car maintainance analogy, this is a bit like checking your tyre pressures and oil level before going on a long journey.
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
Eating well, staying hydrated, sleeping enough and exercising regularly can all help keep your family healthy mentally and physically. As temperatures rise during the summer, it’s worth considering that over-heating can trigger frustration and irritability so water bottles, paddling pools and desk fans can all help too. As covid-19 looks set to be with us a while longer, it’s helpful to continue to balance physical and mental health risks for your family too. If the risk from going out can be minimised, family wellbeing is likely to benefit from regular time out and about. If you find yourselves angry during a local lockdown period however, burning off steam on an exercise bike or using a punchbag may still help.
Perhaps not all parents are aware of the impact on children that losing our temper can have. Lucy Reynolds, a Paediatrician, conducted a review of the evidence regarding physical punishment of children. The review found strong and consistent evidence from 98 studies that physical punishment damages children’s wellbeing and carries the risk of escalation into physical abuse. It also highlights evidence that physical punishment increases aggression, anti-social behaviour, depression and anxiety in children, which may continue into their adult lives. The link below will give you more information if you’re interested in learning more.
If you practice mindfulness regularly you will get more skilled at noticing your feelings and thoughts. If you regularly practice mindfulness with those you live with, you’ll also get more skilled at tuning into theirs. Mindfulness might help you notice little things that bother you or triggers, and help give you a calmer headspace to step back and consider how you want to respond when these triggers present themselves in your day to day life. Mindfulness might also help you notice traps. It can be helpful to discuss what you notice regarding triggers and traps with your partner (if you have one), when the kids aren’t around and to decide together how you want to respond based on your parenting values. If you have a plan when you’re calm, you’ll be better prepared when the triggers show up to respond in a way you choose rather than to just act out your feelings and regret it later.
If you want to learn more about mindfulness, check out the mindfulness page on this website for some signposts to start with.
Noticing old stories
Another benefit of mindfulness is it might help you notice some of the old stories you carry from your own experience of being parented. Mindfulness can also help you step back from these and look at them through adult eyes and choose whether to still buy into the story – or decide that it once was helpful (or not?), but may not be something you want to bring into parenting your own child. When it comes to regulating our children’s emotions, this is much easier if we had positive experiences of our parents regulating ours. For those who didn’t we can feel anxious, bewildered and overwhelmed when our children show big emotions. We may not be comfortable with the feeling of vulnerability that comes with those feelings, and be unwilling to see ourselves or be seen by others as weak. It can be helpful to notice if there are any old stories at play here. For example, the “she can’t get away with that” story or the “I need to scare her so she doesn’t do that again” story or the “I won’t be shown up” story. When we can name it as an old story, we can get some distance from it which can empower us to choose whether to buy into it or not. Sometimes old stories were once useful for us, perhaps to keep us safe or protect us. However, old stories that were helpful when we were children who couldn’t choose our circumstances may be less helpful to us as adults if they clash with our parenting values or don’t suit our current situation.
Anger can be like an iceberg – so what’s underneath?
Sometimes we feel angry because it’s easier than acknowledging a more vulnerable or messier feeling underneath which we’re not willing to have. Perhaps we’re unwilling to be anxious or depressed, and defend ourselves from feeling that way by showing anger. Maybe we also struggle to acknowledge our children feel anxious or sad and get angry with them for showing their vulnerability too. Or, maybe we use alcohol or drugs to drown our wobbly feelings, and act them out as anger when our inhibitions get worn away. When we avoid feelings, our lives get messy. As parents, if we avoid acknowledging our feelings we also avoid managing them. If we don’t manage our anger, our relationships with our children and with ourselves get damaged. Are you willing to acknowledge your child’s feelings and your own in the service of having a healthy relationship with your child? If you can, you’re in a much more empowered position.
We know that post-natal depression is more common now due to the social isolation that new mums might experience due to covid-19. For example, some mums have laboured without birth partners and experienced traumatic birth without the support of those close to them. Many women have not been able to have face to face meetings with health visitors to discuss how they are feeling in themselves. It hasn’t been possible to go to face to face baby classes or baby and toddler groups, so those without an existing support network will have found it harder to make new mum friends. Anger can be part of post-natal depression – it’s important to say that help is available for post-natal depression, but it might take more courage to bring the topic up over the phone. For others, cabin fever induced by shielding, the frustration of trying to work at home while juggling child care and feeling that neither role is going well, or pre-existing mental health problems like anxiety or depression might be fueling anger. For some it could be that the legitimate avoidance of going out due to covid-19 lockdown has made it now scary to leave the house at all, leading to panic attacks. If you can deal with what’s underneath the anger, the anger iceberg may melt away.
The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger by Russell Kolts– A book based on compassion-focused therapy on how to bring compassion to the pain of anger and feeling threatened.
Depending on what is underneath your anger, some of these resources based on cognitive behavioural therapy might be relevant – https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself
Consider what you need most yourself when you’re angry
When I’m angry, the two things I crave most are connection and compassion. I want to feel heard, understood, validated and cared about. I don’t want to be silenced or walked away from, so it’s interesting that angry children are often sent to time out – often what they might really crave is time in. That said, self-imposed time out as an adult can be invaluable to give yourself enough breathing space to regulate your own emotions and prevent yourself saying or doing something you might regret and be unable to take back. While you are having time out, you can still try to respond to yourself in a compassionate way, giving yourself credit for walking away and engaging in something you find soothing – whether that means listening to angry music with your headphones on, going out to yell in the garden or venting to a friend on the phone, going for a run round the streets or having a cuppa.
Mediating between family members who have a disgreement can help them see each other’s perspective. It can help to name feelings for children, and to voice your own to them. For example, “I’m noticing the thought that..”, “I want…”, “I need…”. It can also help to name the barrier to getting what you want or need. For example, “I’m noticing that I’m feeling frustrated because I want us all to go for a walk to the beach together but it’s taking a lot longer for us all to get ready than I’d like. Can I help you get your shoes on so we could go?”. “I” messages can be more helpful than “you” messages – for example “I’m feeling annoyed” rather than “you’re annoying”. It can also be helpful if someone is angry to say things like “I hear you”, “you’ve got a point”, “can you tell me more about that?” “What can I do?” “Can I help you?” “Can you help me understand?” rather than things like “shush!”, “shut up!” or “go away!”. If the latter feel more tempting, it might help to take a few deep breaths or try placing your hand over your heart to feel it beating, and reminding yourself you can still be there for you and your family before choosing how to respond.
However wonderful a parent you are or aspire to be, it’s likely that at some point from birth to the age of 18 someone in your home will lose their temper and express their anger. So even if you don’t think it could ever happen in your home, it may be worth considering what you’d do if it did. The aim with managing anger is to reduce how often anger is expressed in a harmful way and to limit the damage caused when it does happen like that.
My daughter and I decided to mindfully paint the flower pot in the picture above during my baby son’s nap. She focussed carefully on painting within the lines to colour the flowers and stems. Then, she practiced using her noticing skills to avoid getting the background blue colour on the flowers. Her concentration skills have been improving with the extra mindfulness opportunities we’ve found with home educating during COVID and she did really well – however, my baby son then woke up, and she was frustrated and disappointed I had to go to him.
While I was changing my baby’s nappy, she somehow got hold of a water spray to “clean”. She then decided to use it to spray the electric plug sockets. I then heard conflict erupt as my husband noticed what she was up to.
How you use time out will depend on which family members of what age are feeling angry. If siblings are fighting, separate them. If an adult and child are clashing, the adult in conflict may need to remove themselves to a different room and let a calm adult take over for a while. It might help to avoid “the blame game” as we all get angry sometimes and we can all say and do the wrong thing, particularly in the heat of the moment. Sometimes you might be the angry one, and sometimes you might be the calm one. We all have our own triggers and hot spots too, so it can be helpful to respect each other’s windows of tolerance and limits. For us on this occasion, my husband removed himself to another room and as the calm one, I stayed with the children.
Regulate and contain
If children have experienced anger from a parent, they may feel angry, hurt, sad, scared, shocked or overwhelmed. They may want you to witness their upset before you will be able to contain it. They may want a hug. They may want you just to sit quietly with them for a while. They may need a snack or a drink. They may need you to walk or run with them to let off steam. They may find jokes and humour helpful to defuse feelings. Distraction may be helpful later, as long as first they have felt heard, understood and validated. It will be helpful to reassure the child they are safe and loved. It will be helpful to avoid strong statements of blame or criticism, as for children if you criticise the other parent you are also criticising a part of themselves. It is helpful to make a distinction between who people are vs. what they do – i.e. we love you, we don’t love it when you name call/yell/kick/hit/bite.
As part of regulating feelings, we finished painting the flower pot – sometimes I might have been tempted to paint to the edges myself, but that day I didn’t. I thought it would be helpful to allow the flower pot to remain slightly imperfect, to match the reality that as containers for our children’s feelings and behaviours, we are all imperfect parents. I want us to be humble and honest enough to acknowledge that, to ourselves and to our children. If we can accept ourselves as we really are, it gives us a chance to keep doing better. It also models self-acceptance to our children who will likely have plenty experience of losing their tempers and making mistakes too as they grow up.
Clarify what happened
To work out where to go from an angry incident, it helps to build up an accurate picture of what happened that encapsulates everyone’s perspectives. Adults and children do not always see things the same way. For example, my daughter was not too bothered about her Daddy’s angry words, but she was outraged that he sprayed water in her face. I on the other hand was more concerned with the words. Meanwhile, his perspective was that he had saved her life by separating her from the water spray as he was terrified she or he would get an electric shock.
Debrief thoughts and feelings
It can be helpful to assist a child to identify, name and vocalise what they felt and thought about an emotionally intense experience. My daughter was able to identify that she had been looking for connection from spraying the socket, and that from her perspective negative attention was as desirable as positive attention. She found it trickier to appreciate her Dad’s perspective and also to understand the safety issues regarding water and electrics, as she had no previous knowledge or experience of those.
After timeout, my husband was able to apologise to our daughter for losing his temper and overreacting. We will all mess up as parents with our children, on repeat. In paralell, they will also mess up on repeat. It is hard work and toxic for our wellbeing to hold onto grudges, and trying instead to hear the other person out with compassion and respect can help build bridges and maintain connections. Repairing ruptures in our relationships can also help model conflict resolution to our children, teaching resilience for when they need these skills in nursery, at school and on the playground.
Problem solving – how to prevent it happening again?
There are a few steps to problem solving, the first being to clearly describe the problem. The next step is to consider options for resolving it. Then, we can weigh the pros and cons of different options. Then, we pick the best solution to try. Then, we try it out. Afterwards, we evaluate our success and consider whether we need to try again. In our problem solving discussion we identified there were risks to manage regarding our daughter’s access to water around electrical appliances and agreed that water spray like cleaning sprays would be kept in a high cupboard out of her reach, and that she would only have access to water under close adult supervision. We also identified that she was having difficulty understanding what we we were explaining about the risks. Our daughter is very sophisticated in her use of vocabulary which can make it easy to forget that she is only 3, and emotionally and psycho-socially she still has a lot to learn – particularly about risk assessment. Often children will try to experiment with play to explore risk taking, and it can be helpful to provide education if they hit on something new they haven’t learned about yet. and that we needed to provide some education about electrical safety that was developmentally appropriate and accessible for her – thanks YouTube! Another time, we might have tried a book. Pictures can help younger children understand more than words alone.
A point of agreement for us was that it would probably be unhelpful for there to be no consequences for spraying a plug socket with water. One natural consequence of it was that my husband got angry, and another was that the doorbell was out of action for a day (sorry Sainsburys delivery man!). For me, because there had been anger already, further consequences would have felt too harsh. However, otherwise I would have used logical consequences such as removing waterplay and bath toys for the day.
Adult conversations – boundaries and house rules for adults too
There will be times as parents when it is helpful to talk through adult concerns separately from children. It is not helpful for children to witness their parents arguing unproductively, although hearing parents constructively work through a problem would be useful if both adults can do so calmly and in a developmentally appropriate way for the child. For us, it was helpful to have a refresher chat on boundaries for anger and to agree that if my husband felt that way again, he would remove himself to another room as soon as he noticed and I would immediately take over with the children. We also agreed on the need to balance mental and physical health regarding covid-19. For us since the risks have reduced and my husband continues to work from home, we agreed it would be helpful for myself and the children to get out and about more during the day so he could have peace to work and we could avoid cabin fever.
Using play to explore experiences
For young children, they will often try to make sense of their experiences through play. The following day I noticed my daughter using words her Daddy had used towards her in play with her baby brother. I reflected this back to her and it gave us another opportunity to talk it over. Depending on the experience, play can also be a helpful way to resolve feelings by ending the scenario differently. For example, my daughter has a doctor bear who “was struggling to look after her patient” that day. I was able to express some empathy for the bear’s struggle and problem solve how the bear could manage better.
The next day, my daughter and I mindfully baked a chocolate brownie for us to enjoy as a family. We both find the process of baking soothing and comforting. I’ll admit we did have to defuse from some critical words from my husband along the lines of “you need to learn how to cook properly!” as it was a bit squidgy in the middle (my idea of a good brownie). However, even by his exacting standards it got an 8/10 and an “adequate” rating once he ate it. It can be helpful to allow constructive criticism from someone who loves us while holding it lightly, as critics often come from a caring place of trying to protect, shape and improve us. However, it is not helpful to fuse with and hold tightly to these critical comments as that can lead to resentment and bitterness. Rather, as I was eating my – delicious! – brownie I was voicing my enjoyment out loud, while telling my husband I was letting the critical words bounce off me like waves. Pleasingly, said words stopped once he got a mouthful of brownie. I also noted that when we ate a shop bought cake later that week his comment was “it’s not as good as your cake, though it is cooked”.
Domestic Violence and Abuse
Anger can affect families in different ways. For some families, arguments are rare and avoided carefully. For others, they are normal but not upsetting or intense. For some, they might be occasional but big blow ups when they do happen. When considering what is acceptable, opinions might vary. However, if in your home someone is regularly expressing uncontrolled anger, you might be feeling unsafe, or worried about how to keep your children safe.
It wouldn’t be right to write about anger without acknowledging the reality that the prevalence of domestic violence and abuse has escalated during covid-19 for all the reasons I’ve written about above. I’m also aware someone living with abuse could find this article and it could be their (your?) chance to find an exit route. There are a few really important things to say. Firstly, the perpetrator of abuse holds responsibility for their actions. If someone has verbally, emotionally or physically hurt you at home – it’s not your fault. Whatever you’ve said or done, you deserve to be safe and treated with respect. If someone at home has hurt your child – it’s not your child’s fault. Children will push buttons, boundaries and limits and they need to be able to do this safely – it’s not ok to hurt them as punishment. It’s not ok to allow anyone else to hurt them as punishment either – however much you love that other person. Children can’t protect themselves from violence and abuse – that’s an adult job, and we are all responsible for that. Sometimes taking responsibility can mean noticing we are struggling and asking another adult for help. Emotional abuse leaves the biggest mental health scars of any form of abuse – so it’s important to watch how we talk to our children and how any other adults at home or involved in their care talk to them. We know that domestic violence affects people from all walks of life and can be perpetrated against men, not just women – but it is most commonly women who are on the receiving end of abuse, and it becomes more likely in families under high stress and pressure. If you’re feeling uncomfortable after reading this and concerned about yourself, your partner, your children or anyone else -help is available.
If you or your child is ever in a situation where you feel either of you is at risk of physical harm, you can contact the police for support to defuse the situation and keep everyone safe. The link below takes you to the Police Scotland page on domestic abuse.
Womens Aid offer support to women and children affected by domestic abuse. They run a program called the Cedar Project for children who have experienced domestic violence and with my professional hat on I’ve referred many families there for support, as the feedback I’ve heard is very positive. Womens Aid also have information and advice on staying safe during Covid-19 on their website for anyone experiencing domestic abuse and also for concerned friends and family.
Another source of support may be from Refuge, the national domestic abuse helpline. They have a helpful section on what domestic abuse is, your rights and options and support available. They also have a section on how to support someone you care about who you are worried may be experiencing domestic abuse.
It is possible to self-refer your family for social work support if you feel that would help. The referral pathway in each area will be different as will the nature of the support on offer. If you look up your local council online though, you can find out more. If you are unsure, your GP or any professional involved with your children will be able to help you. Again with my professional hat on I am aware of plenty families who have found social work referral has unlocked much needed help and support options they couldn’t access otherwise.
You could also contact the NSPCC for advice if you are concerned about your own child, or another child you know. They offer a helpline and can help talk you through concerns and options.
It can be difficult to raise the topic of domestic abuse with friends and family, but pre-covid we know that 1 in 3 women were affected at some point in their lives. So if that number is rising, it’s time to talk and you will find you’re not alone. If you still have doubts about seeking help but feel unsafe at home – what value would be served by staying quiet? And by speaking up? What is most important for you about that? How can you move towards what is most important for you? What would be your first step? Go gently with yourself.
If you’re feeling uncomfortable about how you manage your own anger after reading this, do you feel willing to seek some help in the service of being the best parent you can be to your child? For self-help, I hope some of the links I’ve signposted to are useful. For professional help, a chat with your GP or any professional you trust who works with your child will hopefully help you work out the way forward. Go gently with yourself.