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April 11, 2014

Anger management comes home

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by Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

There was a time when anger wasn’t really an issue in my life. At most there were misunderstandings that arose between well-meaning adults who treated each other with respect. People with “anger issues” seemed to inhabit a faraway planet with a landscape of inexplicable strife, screaming and stress.  

Then I became a parent. 

Suddenly, there were feelings, by the boatload, with tears, whines, whispered invectives and yes, yelling that pin-balled around our little house. Suddenly, I wasn’t a coolheaded professional smiling my way along a high road of meetings, work lunches and dinner parties. I was a red eyed, broken tongued monster mama of the lost temper and found weaknesses. Then I spoke to other parents and I discovered this humbling transformation wasn’t so much a revelation of my particular bodi-satva/cross-to-bear but just, well, normal.

As parents, we welcome our kids into the world embracing them with Love with a big L. Love will show the way, we whisper, cradling that tiny creature in the first days of their fragile lives. Then fragility grows into bumptious beings whose very development is predicated on pressing our buttons, pushing our limits, and giving us reasons to holler: Put your shoes on! We’re late! Don’t hit your sister! Don’t speak to me in that tone! and million other found objects in the junk heap of parenting bloopers that find themselves coming to life in our vocal chords. 

This is why I was so thrilled about our first Emotional Smarts Hangout last week – the first of our online live chats with parenting experts we've launched with Social Moms and If You.  For this first Emotional Smarts Hangout, I spoke about anger and parenting with Marc Brackett, director of Yale's Center for Emotional Intelligence and one of the foremost voices on the social emotional learning in the country and America’s Supernanny Deborah Tillman, whose Lifetime show goes into days of “lock-down” with families in crisis. 

They come from such distinct walks of life – Marc a researcher scientist at a New England Ivy League, Deborah a professional childcare center director and mother turned reality TV star – that I imagined that they might have very disparate approaches to the same topic. They might even disagree! 

But the real surprise was their shared understanding: turns out that anger management in the shadow of the Ivory Tower and the spotlight of cable TV are not so different after all. At the heart of both Marc and Deborah’s message is that parents need to be the role model for their children’s emotional learning and yes, it’s not easy, and no, no one’s perfect, but it is possible and hugely important.  

Both speakers abounded in insights, but each offered brilliant encapsulations of some simple principals that all parents can use when it comes to parenting and anger:

On being a role model:

Deborah Tillman offered an inspired motto for parenting when a child is acting up that refocuses the parent on what they should do: “Remember, you are teaching, training, and talking from 0-10 years old and listening, learning, and loving the 'new' people they are becoming from 10-20 years old. You want to lead by example and model the behavior that you want your child to exhibit.”

On being your best parent self:

Marc Brackett recommended thinking of five words that describe you as a parent at your very best. When you’re angry, go back to that image of your best self and let that person take ownership of the situation. By shifting attention away from the child’s behavior and onto your desire to be your “best self,” you can refocus your parenting strategies and quell your anger.

On children’s tantrums:

Tillman observed that children often don’t really know why they’re angry because it’s not what’s on the surface. She advised taking the time to communicate more about feelings – whether it means more conversation, singing, writing a letter, or anything else that allows for the expression of real emotion.

When you find yourself loosin’ it regularly:

Brackett advised that parents ask themselves: "Is that strategy working? If you're using that yelling and screaming, 'Get to your bedroom!' and that's not working [then you have to change it.]"  He acknowleged that "parents are very stressed. When their internal resources are depleted, burned from work, hungry, tired, that's when they're at their worst." And that of course is the time that parents' anger is triggered. "That's when you have to be your best self. You have to say: "I'm the most caring, empathic, loving mother on earth."

On sibling rivalry:

If a family is struggling with sibling rivalry, Deborah suggests that parents take a step back and include their own behavior in the picture: “If you go scream at two kids arguing and fighting and the kids look at you, "Well, that's how we handle the problem…" Take a step back look in the mirror. It's not about making this child, it's about raising this child. What do I need to do as a person to do that?”

Finally, there were a few great questions from parents during the chat that didn’t get answered and I wanted to make sure a few of them did. Deborah Tillman generously replied to some this week.

from:

Michelle Filice: What if the parent was raised with a single parent that showed no emotion ,let alone didn't play with you to give you that imaginative mind. What should that parent do?

 We don’t always get the best examples growing up. Believing that your parent did the best they could will help you get past any form of resentment. However, I would suggest that since you recognize the lack of emotional connection was an issue, you have the opportunity to understand how that made you feel and don’t pass that along to your children. I encourage you to lead by example and make every effort to have an open line of communication between you and your children. Set aside some time each night to discuss your feelings. My family used to call it the “Lemon squeeze.” We went around the circle and each person got the chance to speak about what “soured” their day and what “sweetened” their day. Only by talking will you be able to open up a floodgate of emotions that you may have never experienced if you did not make a conscious effort. 

ConnieM: Is it ever justified or reasonable to blow up at your child?

It depends on what you mean by “blow up.” Certainly, it may be justified but certainly not the example we want to set as parents. You want to lead by example and model the behavior that you want your child to exhibit. Is it easy? Of course not. If it were, we would all be able to do it 100 percent of the time. For those times when you do yell or “blow up” this is a reminder that you are human and have the opportunity to go to your child and apologize. Continue to work on yourself and figure out the triggers that get you to the blowing up phase. Once you recognize you might be heading in that direction, you can walk away and take a few minutes to gather your thoughts and emotions BEFORE addressing your child. 

DanielleP: My teen daughter cries a lot and is very dramatic about everything. How do I calm her down without seeming like I'm being insensitive?

Your teen daughter is probably going through a lot of changes emotionally, physically, mentally, etc. Therefore, patience is the order of the day. Get her to journal write or spend more time talking to you. It is difficult to get a teen to calm down once they are already emotional. When she is not emotional is when you want to talk to her about her feelings and why she gets so upset over certain things. You also want her to come up with some emotionally healthy ways to express her emotions besides becoming so dramatic. Remember not to be judgmental or critical. 

Is aggression human nature? Most scientists would say yes. From the invention of the fork (instead of carrying a sharp knife) to laws against violence to cultural practices like lining up, our everyday lives are suffused with objects and behaviors designed to tame and curtail the dragon within.

But in the family – as a society – the dragon wrecks havoc. According to recent statistics, there’s nearly a million incidents of domestic violence every year and 25% of women have experienced domestic violence.  And there are heartbreakingly nearly 700,000  cases of child abuse per year. Children contribute to the national rage, too: one study found that 37% of children had committed at least one act of serious abuse during the previous year.

So if your family sometimes isn’t the peaceful sanctuary you’d like it to be, don’t beat yourself up. But also, say the experts, don’t ignore the issue. You have the power to switch the channel away from tantrums and tirades and toward real communication. It may not be easy – sometimes it may feel superhuman. But you won’t be alone. In fact,  millions of other parents including yours truly will be right there with you.

(Please join us on June 4 at 11:00 PT/2:00 ET for our second Emotional Smarts Hangout with Today Show's parenting expert Michele Borba and NBA star Adonal Foyle, who will be talking about learning to fail.)

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