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Anger Management for Parents

It’s 6pm. You’re tired. The kids are tired. You’re trying to get dinner. They’re trying to get your attention. If they’d just give you a minute you’d be able to finish what you need to do. But they won’t. They keep at you and at you and at you until… you explode.

There’s a lot of talk about anger in our society today. We hear about road rage, queue rage, supermarket trolley rage. If you’re a parent, however, chances are that the most common form of rage you experience is Kid Rage.

“When parents lose it, it’s triggered by many different things,” says Matthew Sanders, Professor of Clinical Psychology, Director of the Parenting and Family Support Centre at the University of Queensland. “Take sibling conflict, for instance. You’re angry or annoyed usually because what you’re dealing with is noise. It’s distressing and intrusive. If a parent is on the phone or doing something else and has to stop to sort it out, that means the parent is probably emotionally coiled to react like a spring.”

Part of the problem is what he calls ‘Attributional Bias’, more or less our perception of a situation. As parents we are always making inferences about why we think something has happened,” he says. “If we believe it’s been done deliberately to upset us, we’re more likely to get irritated or annoyed than if we think it’s happened due to accident.”

Of course, kids being kids – noisy, excitable, dependant, etc – there will always be times when they drive you mad. It’s perfectly normal. For some parents, however, their reactions step out of the zone of normal and into an area where help may be required.

“How do you know if you have a problem with anger? People start telling you that you do,” says Melbourne-based psychologist Meredith Fuller. “Plus, you look angry, you sound angry, you feel angry. When you’re feeling out of control, feel your breathing change, you get the shakes, you’re kicking the garbage bin, banging the dishes, your neck and shoulders are sore. Any of those symptoms suggest that the situation is careering out of control.”

“If you find yourself shouting frequently, hitting out, or you’re irritable and cranky all the time, you need to learn to manage your emotions,” says Sanders.

So what can you do about it?

1. Breathe deeply. “Don’t let the stress build up,” says Fuller. “Move around if you can – anything to forestall a ‘fight or flight’ stress response in your body.”

2. Get some distance – physically and psychologically. “Often we’ll suggest that parents put some time between what they see and what they’re about to say next – count backwards slowly from 10,” says Sanders. Fuller recommends a physical break from the child or children in question, even if it’s only heading into the backyard for a few minutes.

3. Don’t engage with the enemy. “Children are masters at the broken-record technique,” says Fuller. “Don’t be worn down, say yes and then find you’re angry at yourself. Just say no. As soon as you engage and try to justify why they can’t have icecream for breakfast, you get angry. Be polite but firm.”

4. Set terms. “Explain that you have things to do but that you will be available to discuss their issue in 10 minutes or after you’ve washed up or whatever it is,” says Fuller. “Then give them 15 minutes to discuss it. This works well with teenagers as everyone gets a breather between rounds.”

5. Learn to change your attributions. “Change the way you explain their behaviour to yourself,” says Sanders. “It works with all age groups. The newborn does not cry to spite you, the four-year-old does not spill the milk on purpose.”

6. If you feel you need help, a parenting course might be what you need. New skills can help you cope and leave you feeling less alone. Visit Triple P or more information about the Triple P Parenting program devised by Professor Sanders.