Every joy of fatherhood brings an equal and opposite toll, tolls that add up into the emotional mélange you know too well: exhaustion, aggravation, irritability, a low bubbling anger, your favorite foods tasting bitter in your mouth, your favorite shows somehow unbearable to watch. You know, grumpiness. We’re exaggerating a bit here, yes, but grumpiness can grow into a big issue if you’re not careful. It’s an affliction that seems to disproportionately target dads, even the gentlest on their best days and it can fester and turn you into a full-on sourpuss who’s not enjoyable to be around. Here’s what to know about grumpiness and how to make it go away — or, at least, how to make the best of it for your family.
It’s Not You, It’s Men
“Men characteristically present less of an emotional spectrum than women,” says Kevon Owen, an outpatient psychotherapist based in Oklahoma. “Anxiety looks like being grumpy, being grumpy looks like being grumpy, being overwhelmed looks like being grumpy, confusion, frustration, hunger go on and on they all look the same.”
The best way to come to terms with being grumpy, per Owen, is to better identify what is going on. Are you overworked? Undernourished, literally or figuratively? Have you been putting off dealing with the something or someone that’s been getting on your nerves? These are all essential questions for anyone who’s grumpy.
Make Time for Self Care
“The number one reason that I’ve seen the fathers that I work with get grumpy is because they are overworked and burnout,” says Travis McNulty, a psychotherapist specializing in parent consultation. “This overflows into their relationships with their wives and their children causing them to seem irritable, angry, or isolated/withdrawn.”
You can keep your grumpiness from becoming everyone’s grumpiness by engaging in a little daily self-care. “This includes incorporating exercise and healthy diet in their day, making sure they’re having time for themselves, and incorporating fun and excitement in their personal lives outside of being a dad,” McNulty says. “These few simple steps are often overlooked but can make a world of difference.”
Manage Your Expectations Properly
All grumpiness is the result of unrealized expectations, per Chris Cortman, a Florida psychologist, author, and father of three. If you find yourself pissed off at your kids, he says, it’s probably because they haven’t met your expectations — and that’s probably because you expect too much of them, or at least more than they can deliver in a given moment.
Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Michigan, agrees. “Happiness equals reality minus expectations,” she says. “The more expectations you have, the more disappointed and frustrated you will feel.” If you are using the word ‘should’, you are probably applying extra expectations. “Do not ‘should’ on yourself or your family. I think men tend to have unreasonable expectations for how much time things take and how much it costs to do things as a family, and how happy everyone should be about it. These are common traps for frustration,” she sys.
What to do about that frustration? Remember that your kids are kids. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. “Your children are not perfect and prone to behaving in ways that are substantially beneath your expectations,” Cortman says. As such, it is usually wise to avoid the grumpy temptation to criticize them when encouragement could yield the same results without so much tension. “Mistakes and disappointing behavior are always an opportunity to learn,” he says. “It’s up to you, Dad, to make these behaviors into teachable moments.”
When In Doubt, Be Kind
Cortman also stresses the importance of acting with kindness and maturity even in your grumpiest moments. “A simple rule is this: never say anything to your children (or your wife) unless it is kind, necessary and true,” he says. “Even complaints need to be expressed appropriately and the execution of consequences need to be done with self-control, fairness and kindness.”
“Have empathy,” Krawiec agrees. “Perspective-take. You may not recognize how your anger sounds to others. Imagine being a child and seeing an adult behave in an angry way.” Krawiec recommends a conflict-mitigation technique she calls the “5:1 ratio,” in which you provide five encouraging statements for each area of conflict. The result is an atmosphere where encouragement flows freely and kids don’t get overwhelmed by criticism.
Don’t Expect People to Read Your Mind
Patience and directness are key to getting through grumpy spells intact. “Do not expect mind reading,” Krawiec says. “Give directions. Be specific and positive. You can be polite but firm. Men tend to minimize things that bother them and then explode once they have hit a level of annoyance. If you say plainly what you want and follow through with encouragement or praise when it’s done and a small consequence when it’s not.”
According to Krawiec, you can mitigate the potential fallout of your grumpy feelings by acknowledging them. “Consider labeling your feelings: ‘I feel angry,’ ‘This is upsetting me,’” she says. “Avoid yelling, swearing, name calling, and threats to leave, and definitely anything physical. Consider taking a short timeout (don’t abandon for a prolonged time) or deep breathing. Return, polite but firm with your expectation. ‘I feel angry when you shout. I want you two to turn down your volume.’ If they don’t, apply a time out or privilege loss.”
Understand How Your Grumpiness Will Effect the Group
Above all else, it’s crucial to keep in mind that however crotchety you are, your upset will inevitably be felt several times worse by those on its receiving end. “It’s okay to be mad,” Krawiec says. “It’s not okay to be bad. As a dad your anger is going to be interpreted as harsher to your spouse and kids than you experience it yourself. I say men are like tea kettle and women are like slow cookers, meaning women are more comfortable with a low level of anger for long periods of time where men have short but intense bursts. While it’s comfortable for men to demonstrate anger this way, it can be scary for everyone else.”