I used to be an angry dad. I remember the moment I realized it, feeling as though I’d slapped myself in the face. It was a cold morning, but I was sweating through my work clothes, carrying three bags, stomping along after my children on their scooters. In my rush to get out of the house and to school and work, I got angry.
Not just raised voices, but really angry.
I lost control of myself, physically manhandling them into their coats and shoes, picking them up and putting them outside the front door. Later, I remember the deep feeling of shame, guilt, and regret. My only saving grace was that nothing really bad actually happened, but it could have. I wasn’t in control.
I’m an angry dad, I thought. Something I never wanted to be. I needed to fix it fast.
That was five years ago. Since then I’ve worked very hard to become patient and understand what it means to be a good dad. I’ve learned about child development, what happens in our brains and bodies when we get angry, and how to create the space between emotional reactions and real-world actions. There are some important takeaways.
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When we get angry, two things happen. We focus on ourselves and the moment — how they’ve made us feel, how much we’re trying — and we assume malicious intent.
I’ve realized that kids aren’t really trying to wind you up. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
The trigger for their action is either:
Something physical. They’re tired, hungry, thirsty or need the bathroom.
Something emotional. Friendship problems or not getting enough of your attention, because a sibling, work or something else is getting more of it. Remember: You are one of the few people they love and depend on more than anyone else in the world.
Something evolutionary. They’re growing, their job is to learn about the world. The only way to do that properly is to try new things and see what happens. While the unintended consequence of their action might be your angry reaction, it wasn’t the motive.
Often when we get angry, we separate ourselves from the people around us. We say ‘Just give me some space’, or ‘I can’t deal with you right now’. We need this space to get back in control, but we need to create it in a way that our children know we will come back to them.
Our children need our love and attention. When we get angry at them, we attribute blame to them. This leaves them feeling regretful, sad, and, at worst, ashamed. These are heavy emotions for a child to be left alone to deal with, especially a little one.
And try to give yourself some grace. It takes some maturity to think back over a situation, realize what went wrong, admit your role in it, and tell yourself you can do better next time. It’s much easier to accept the story that you’re a bad person. When I learned this was the impact of my anger, I felt ashamed, but I used that feeling to help me change.
We’re going too fast. Emails, WhatsApp messages, deadlines and to-do lists rule adult life. There’s always more to do and get done faster. Children move at a different pace. They’re learning how the world works and how to get what they need and want in it. That’s a big job.
They’re learning to emotionally self-regulate, to start and grow healthy relationships, they’re learning self-respect, perseverance, resilience and they’re learning about themselves. This is hard work. It takes time. We’ve forgotten how hard and how long it takes because it’s mostly, automatic for us now.
When we put our expectations ahead of what our children are developmentally capable of, we create a gap that gets filled with our impatience, frustration, anger, blame, and their shame, because they haven’t met our expectations. When we expect a 2-year-old not to act like a 2-year-old, the fault is ours. We may as well get cross because the moon doesn’t glow green. You overcome this by learning where to accurately set your expectations.
I had an opportunity to put these lessons to practice recently. I only left the room for a few minutes, when I did, my two boys, aged 10 and 8, were reading quietly. When I returned, one had the other pinned to the floor with his forearm. I reacted calmly, something that hasn’t come naturally to me over the years, but something I’ve worked very hard to change.
I walked in, told one to get off the other, then lifted him off. I knew I needed to separate them before we could come to any sort of resolution. But the son I’d picked up saw my physicality as an injustice. We’re being very careful to teach our children to respect other people’s bodies and physical space. I’d seen the need to physically intervene as perfectly valid, to end the suffering of the one on the floor, but the son I’d picked up saw it as an act of aggression towards him and stormed off.
Upon reflection, I realized I was in the wrong. Every behavior is really an act of communication that’s louder than words. Despite the fact that I believed my actions to be justified in the name of my son’s safety, to my son they were unforgivable – an infringement on his personal space and autonomy, despite it being exactly what he inflicted on his brother.
I know from my work in behavior change that getting someone to behave differently means meeting them where they are. With children, this means acknowledging their point of view and feelings. Not validating, but acknowledging how they felt and why they did what they did. There’s a subtle difference, but an important one.
After checking the one on the floor was fine, I got his version of events. “I asked him to give me my book back, when he didn’t, I went over and grabbed it. Then he pushed me over and sat on top of me because I wouldn’t let go of the book,” he said.
Then I turned my attention to the one who had stormed off. I had given him, and myself, a bit of time to cool down, which is crucial, few things escalate quicker than two opposing points of view mixed with a temper. I went and spoke to him, getting down on his level, so I could look him in the eye. This always helps me get into a calmer, more empathetic role, because it reminds me of how grown up I am in comparison. I apologized for my actions first off, acknowledging his feelings so he knew I understood him. That feelings bit is a critical step because it helps rebuild, or build a relationship.
I explained why my physically removing him was wrong, and I gave the reasons for my actions. He listened quietly, no talking back or exchanging cross words. This doesn’t always happen. Then I asked him to apologize to his brother, and once he’d had a bit more space, he did. I set a natural consequence, of no borrowing of brother’s books for today. It wasn’t a big thing, but did make logical sense — if you can’t be sensible with your brother’s stuff, you don’t even get to ask for any of it. His brother would have probably set this boundary himself, but by me doing it, the chances of repeat problems were reduced on a day when the last thing I wanted was to do more than mess around with my kids.
That night, when the kids were asleep and the house quiet, I remembered times when I’ve messed up situations like that. It’s not just kids that change quickly, but us grown-ups too if we make the effort to.
Just like we teach our kids to take responsibility for their actions, we need to remember that our impatience and anger are our responsibility.
When you accept this and start to fix it, things change for the better. It’s not complicated, it’s not that hard, but you must stick at it. When you do, it’s not just your relationship with your children that gets better. Your self-control, ability to think clearly and relationship with yourself also improves.
If that’s not worth the work, I don’t know what is.
David Willans is a father of two boys, who explores what it means to be a dad at BeingDads one day a week and works a proper job the other four. At the weekend he rests and plays, preferably outside with friends and family.