These past few months have been, oh, a bit rough for parents. During the long, cooped-up months, we’ve all gotten angry and lost our temper with the kids once or twice. And by once or twice, yes, we mean at least a dozen times. Per month.
By now, we’re all asking “How do I control my anger?” But it’s important to know that, while losing your temper and yelling at kids every now and again isn’t ideal it certainly doesn’t mean you’re the worst parent in the world. In fact, it means you’re a parent in our world. Even Carla Naumburg, social worker and author of the book How to Stop Losing Your Shit With Kids admits she still yells at her kids from time to time.
“I don’t want anyone to think I’ve stopped losing my shit with my kids,” she says. “That would be an unfair expectation to set up. I lose it less with them. And I recover more quickly and more fully now that I have these skills and strategies in place.”
So how can parents strive to not lose their temper and control their anger more often, particularly in our very stressed out times? It comes from understanding our triggers and creating internal failsafes help keep ourselves accountable. Parents lose their cool when stress kicks off the brain’s unconscious fight, flight or freeze response. The nervous system, per Naumburg, is on high alert and prepared to quickly react to threats. That’s all for the good in the presence of a predator in primitive times. But in our modern world, our stresses are caused less by wooly mammoths than by the whining bleats of the super-annoying children we love with all our hearts.
“We don’t consciously decide to lose our shit with our kids,” Naumburg says. “And if we don’t consciously decide to do it, it’s going to be really hard to decide not to do it.”
Parents can’t simply choose to not lose our shit. But by heeding warning signs, we can avoid a total shitstorm or at least minimize their damage. So what can parents do? A lot, actually. Here are eight tactics to help you control your anger and keep your cool with the kids.
1. Understand That Willpower Isn’t Going to Help
Stress activates our fight or flight response and shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that strategizes and thinks through emotions. “We don’t need that part of our brain when we’re trying to run away from a wooly mammoth,” Naumburg says. “In that moment, the part of our brain that should be turning on the willpower is offline.
In lose-your-shit moments, you’re not capable of reasoning with anyone, let alone yourself. If you were, it wouldn’t make a difference. The human nervous system doesn’t respond to commands. Trying to control it will make you more tense, which signals to your nervous system that you’re really in danger.
2. Recognize Your Triggers and Learn to Pause
Naumburg says recognizing the moments that precede our parental meltdowns can help minimize the damage. “In order to not lose our shit, first we have to realize that we’re about to lose our shit,” she says. Pay attention to your behavior in the moments leading up to losing your shit. “Everybody’s red flags look a little different,” she says. “And when I notice my red flags, I’ll say to my girls, ‘You guys I’m about to yell at you. So either you need to go into a different room or I have to.’”
The next step is critical: taking a beat. “Once you start to notice that the dynamite’s been lit, you can pause,” Naumburg says. “The pause is really important. If there were a real threat, we would not pause. We are sending an important message to our nervous system that this is not a threat.”
During the pause, inhale and exhale, deeply and slowly. Naumburg says deep breaths are like hacking your nervous system. “When I take deep breaths, I’m sending a message to my nervous system that I don’t need to freak out,” she says. This is not a real threat. You’re going to be okay.”
3. Find an Outlet
Pausing can pull you out of tailspin. But you’re still hurtling through the stratosphere at top speed, engines blazing afterwards. The force and momentum doesn’t disappear on its own—it needs an outlet. Once you’ve paused and started breathing, Naumburg’s advice for a next step is simple: do literally anything else other than what you had been doing. But do something.
“You probably still have this intense energy in your body that’s looking for a fight or looking to run away,” she says. “You’ve got to do something with that energy.” The next step will vary by taste and temperament. “For some people, it’s going to be some physical movement because being triggered is a physical response to the situation,” Naumburg says, adding that for others, reciting a prayer, speaking a mantra or singing a song or turning on some music will help. For Naumburg, channelling her urge to yell into non-hostile, nonsensical phrases yelled her release the pressure. “I started shouting out crazy, insane things that were kind of funny. And for some reason I got to this place where I’d yell “shamalamadingdong!” or I’d look at my girls and yell ‘I really love you!’”
4. Stop Multitasking
Parents, per Naumburg, can avoid the stress that makes us lose our shit by focusing on one task at a time. This advice will feel counterintuitive for working parents who’ve spent months of quarantine with one eye on a zoom call and another on a stir crazy kindergartner. But all that divided attention makes us less likely to accomplish what we need to do and more apt to lose our shit. Instead, she advises what she calls “single-tasking.”
“Multitasking is not a thing we can do,” Naumburg says. “Our brains were not designed that way.” When we think we’re doing two actions at once, we’re really toggling between tasks quickly. “Our brain jumps from one task to the next and some part of our brain or even our body might not catch up,” Naumburg says. We end up off sync with ourselves in a weird way.” Even if the two tasks are simple or otherwise enjoyable, like preparing food while texting with a friend, Naumberg says, tackling them at the same time leads you to a place where your mind or your body decides that you can’t handle this. “It increases our belief that we have too many balls in the air and that we’re going to drop one,” Naumburg says. “That triggers our emotional response and makes us more likely to lose it with our kids.”
5. Choose to be With Your Kids or Ignore Them
Multitasking doesn’t work most of the time. But it’s guaranteed to fail when one of the tasks involves paying attention to your kids, something Naumburg learned as a working mom with two young daughters. “I always had this level of worry in my brain with thoughts about all the things I needed to get done, either for my job or in my personal life,” she says.
Running to empty the dishwasher and reply to work emails while playing with her kids left Naumburg on edge and prone to outbursts. She realized it was better to be either fully present or fully absent with her kids instead of hovering halfway between. Give them your full, undivided attention for 20 or 30 minutes,” she says. “Then, you tell them you have to work. So this is the time for screen time. Or you can read your own book. Or let’s set you up with an activity or a craft. Now it’s my time to get some work done.”
6. Teach Your Kids to Wait
Many parents are reluctant to tell their kids that grown-ups need time, notes Naumburg. Unless they immediately drop what they’re doing the moment their kid asks for help, they feel like they’re bad parents. But, she says, it’s better for parents and kids alike to tell kids that they need to wait for you to be ready. “You don’t have to do that,” she says. “You can say ‘alright buddy, I need five minutes to finish this email and then I’ll help you.” Being available to your kid at a moment’s notice all the time keeps you constantly on edge and might keep kids from learning how to solve problems on their own, which they’ll do most of the time when parents don’t help.
Teaching kids that you’re not at their beck and call at all times is a slow process. “This is something you can start training your children on from an early age but it definitely takes time,” Naumburg says. “For some kids it’s going to be easy because they play well on their own or with siblings. And for some kids it’s going to be hard. If your kid is triggered–if they’re tired, worried, anxious or upset, it’s going to be harder to get them to leave you alone.”
If you see kids doing well on an independent activity, duck and get out of the way. “The other thing I say to parents is that if your kid is playing happily, don’t get involved,” Naumburg says. Leave them alone. This is your moment.”
7. Put Your Phone Down
Parents tend to pick up their phones when they’re triggered by their kids, Naumburg has noticed. While our phones may take us out of the moment, they’re likely to make the moment worse. She has simple advice: “Put down your phone. Seriously. Our phones are triggering the crap out of us. Stop with the doom scrolling. That’s going to make you more likely.” The flip side, she says, is that what we’re watching on our phones is likely to be more fun and entertaining than what’s going on in our lives. “You find some hilarious video and then your kid comes along needing your attention and you think ‘I really wanted to watch the honey badger video, not talk to you.’”
8. Don’t Rush for a Resolution
After tempers flare, parents often rush to smooth things over too soon. “Going to reconnect with your child when you’re still triggered is likely going to end poorly,” Naumburg says. Whether you realize it or not, you’re going into the moment with an unfair expectation that your kid will possess enough maturity to accept your apology and/or offer one of their own. But that’s never going to happen. Because they’re kids, they either care way too much about being yelled at or not at all. “They’re still triggered and still upset or they’ve moved on and they don’t give a shit and don’t want to talk to you about it,” she says. “Or they’re still doing what annoyed you in the first place and they’re pushing your buttons. You may go to apologize to them and end up yelling at them because it was an unsatisfactory experience and you’re still triggered.”