Parenting requires a new set of skills that aren’t always taught in parenting classes. If fact, many parents end up building their parenting skills as they go. As much as one can prepare for parenting, there’s nothing like the experimental life lessons doled out by a screaming baby, a toddler who is learning emotional regulation (in the grocery store with everyone staring) or the teen who makes you question your communication skills altogether. Parents tend to offer support to other parents during difficult developmental phases (think: toddlerhood and teenage years), but seldom do I hear parents openly discussing feeling downright angry at their children on a regular basis.
Feeling anger in parenting can be a frustrating and isolating experience, primarily because it’s a highly occurring emotion yet a rarely validated one. Many parents feel anger toward their children but they don’t feel comfortable expressing that to others. This leads to a cycle of feeling angry, yet not getting the support needed due to shame about feeling that emotion in the first place. But it’s not uncommon and the more we talk about it openly, the more we can de-mystify our experience of this (often misunderstood) emotion.
Although we commonly associate anger with a negative connotation, anger, at its core, is an appropriate response to real or perceived injustice. It is reasonable to feel angry when we sense our needs (or the needs of someone close to us) aren’t being seen or met appropriately. This feeling of being slighted, disrespected or getting the “short end of the stick” leads us to feel anger. In a perfect world, the adaptive purpose of anger is controlled action. Healthy anger can fuel us to make a change in a positive direction.
However, if we’ve experienced violence (physical or emotional) when a parent or partner ACTED OUT of anger in hurtful ways, we link anger to fear, manipulation and control. We may fear our own anger and stuff it, leading to angry outbursts or repressed emotions coming out sideways in unhealthy behaviors. In reality, anger is just an emotion that can alert us to the opportunity for change. When we recognize that we don’t have to be ruled by our anger, it becomes less scary and less shameful. It simply becomes another internal experience of our feelings not unlike joy, sadness, disappointment, etc. In fact, many mental health professionals label anger as a secondary emotion, meaning if you’re angry, you’re possibly feeling another emotion somewhere beneath it (sadness, fear, disappointment, etc).
So what do we do when we experience anger? In psychology, there is a common understanding of how thoughts turn into behaviors. We call the movement from action to reaction a process of “stimulus-response.” When some kind of internal stimuli (thinking about things that don’t seem fair) or external stimuli (your child deliberately did what you asked them not to do AGAIN) provokes a feeling of anger, we do what comes naturally to us based on what we’ve learned— we respond or we react.
The key to learn anger management lies in the brief moments BETWEEN the stimulus and the response. I encourage my clients who struggle with anger not to focus on moving directly from anger to a state of complete zen right away. That expectation can lead to feelings of frustration because our anger responses are learned responses that have been reinforced over many years. Instead, I encourage them to move from anger outbursts to responding with a pause. Scripture reinforces this in James 1:19: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Not only are we encouraged to be quick to listen to others, but if we are prone to anger outbursts, I’d recommend we use the pause to be quick to listen to ourselves. This will help us understand what our anger triggers are so we can adjust accordingly. If we can pause to observe our thoughts non-judgmentally in that moment of pause, we are able to consider what our anger is trying to tell us. It is from this place of awareness that we can respond more calmly out of our values, not out of our fears. Anger and fear are commonly linked. Next time you rage with anger, consider what underlying fear may be driving you.
It’s important to remember that emotions make great messengers but awful masters. The hurtful behaviors that people have linked to anger are simply behavioral choices people have made in response to feeling angry. They’ve allowed anger to master them instead of inform them. It’s fully possible to feel anger and not be violent. It’s fully possible to feel anger and let that inform you that a boundary is needed (within yourself or with others). In fact, it’s possible to feel anger and not act on it at all until you’ve taken the time to see what it’s true purpose is for you.
This process takes time and isn’t always easy. Sometimes it takes a professional to help you identify your anger triggers and new adaptive ways to cope. If you want additional anger management support, take our free assessment to get connected to a therapist or pastoral counselor who can help you process anger in a healthy way. Being open to processing your anger in new ways now can help you avoid feeling regret later.