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How to Manage Parental Anger

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Keegan with Penelope - KEEGAN ALBAUGH
  • keegan albaugh
  • Keegan with Penelope

"Play 'So Long, Farewell' from The Sound of Music, my 4-year-old daughter, Coraline, demanded from the backseat of the car. Penelope, 23 months old, chimed in with her own sounds of displeasure as she dropped the rock she was holding.

"Hold on, let me focus on backing out first," I replied, as I attempted to navigate the school parking lot safely. "Daddy needs to pay attention right now."

"Oh man! I am so frustrated!" yelled Coraline.

We were nearing the end of the first week of the 2020-21 school year, and my attention felt like it was consistently being pulled in a million directions. Both of my children attended different schools on opposite sides of town, and Coraline was doing half days for the first couple of weeks. As a result, I spent nearly two and a half hours each day doing drop-offs and pickups. Somewhere in between, I attempted to get some work done.

After fielding a bunch more questions and requests on the drive home, I was aware that my stress level had gone up as I pulled into our driveway. I shuttled the kids, their belongings and a plastic toilet filled with pee into the house. My partner, Stephanie, greeted us from her makeshift standing desk in the dining room and rushed over to hug Coraline and Penelope.

I looked up and noticed the kitchen was still a mess from the morning. This sight wasn't a surprise, but with my slightly elevated stress level, I could feel my body growing warmer as I clenched my jaw.

"Can I finish up something for work?" asked Stephanie.

"Sure," I answered, even though I felt like I needed a break.

I followed the kids into the living room as Penny asked to use one of the plastic potties that had become permanent fixtures in common rooms. I helped get her situated as Coraline began playing with toys. Within moments of sitting down on the potty, Penny leaned over and grabbed a toy Coraline was playing with. The two of them began screaming and crying.

At that point, I lost it. I raised my voice and forcefully moved Penny's body back to the potty. I was angry and had reached a breaking point.

"Stop it! Just keep your hands to yourselves!" I shouted.

I stood up, left the living room and told Stephanie I was going for a walk. She clearly recognized I had been pushed beyond my capacity and jumped right into the evening routine with our children. I left the house.

Although I was able to pass things off to my partner that day and take care of myself, that isn't always an option. Sometimes I'm flying solo with both kids, and tagging out isn't a possibility. And sometimes, in those moments, things can get pretty ugly. Raising children has brought out a level of rage from deep within that I never knew existed.

I'm also aware that I'm someone who has a lot of support, is in a healthy relationship with my partner and has a lot of experience working in the mental health field. But raising children is still really hard.

Prior to becoming a father, I had a hard time understanding what could possibly drive parents to hit their own children. For most of my life, I viewed parents who abused their children as monsters. Nowadays, with a few years of parental experience under my belt, I have a much clearer understanding of what might drive parents to lash out in a fit of rage.

Raising children while navigating life's challenges can be really stressful, and the resulting anger can lead to poor outcomes if you aren't able to manage it. According to the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, when you're angry, your "adrenal glands secrete stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline," and "elevated cortisol causes a loss of neurons in the prefrontal cortex," the part of the brain that impacts your ability to use proper judgment and make good decisions.

Once you're angry, your brain no longer thinks clearly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated families' stress, due to everything from fear about the virus, to juggling work and home life, to being able to pay bills and put food on the table. And the results of that stress are clear. According to a spring 2020 survey of 562 adults, conducted by the University of Michigan, "61 percent of parents say they have shouted, yelled or screamed at [their children] at least once over the past two weeks." Additionally, "twenty percent reported having spanked or slapped children at least once over the past two weeks."

It's inevitable that parents attempting to raise children while juggling other responsibilities during a global pandemic will get angry on occasion. Here are some tips on how to reduce the frequency of your outbursts.

  • Take care of yourself: Eat well, get sleep, and exercise. Addressing these physical needs goes a long way in anger management.
  • Seek therapy: Digging into your triggers, building awareness and talking about the stressors in your life with a professional can be really helpful.
  • Self-soothe: Once you're mad, you're no longer thinking straight. Find activities you can do when you're angry to help your brain calm down, and allow yourself to reset. A 30-minute walk can reduce stress and improve your mood pretty quickly.
  • Do some angry dancing: Blast your favorite songs and dance your heart out. Do it with your kids, and feel free to share the sentiment: "I'm feeling angry! I'm going to do some angry dancing!"
  • Practice gratitude: Throughout the day, think of the things in your life you appreciate. Although it's easy to get caught up in the challenging stuff, it's important to take moments to notice the positive things going on.
  • Connect with other parents: There are tons of other parents wrestling with the same emotions you're experiencing. Be sure to connect with other parents often and as honestly as possible. Peer support can be extremely valuable.

I walked about a mile that evening, then sat under a tree in a nearby cemetery for ten minutes. There, I was able to focus on my breathing and remind myself that my partner and I were both putting forth our best effort during these bizarre times. It's OK to get angry. What matters most is how we handle those emotions.

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