Studies show that yelling at kids can be just as harmful as physical discipline. Harsh verbal discipline increases a child’s risk for depression and aggressive behavior, and the damage isn’t just done to our kids. It hurts us, too. It damages our relationships and our own self-esteem, and because it frequently leads to actions we regret, we end up with guilt and shame. Furthermore, children learn what they live, and living with an explosive parent means they learn to also act on their anger. Those who don’t carry the heavy load of an angry parent inwardly may become explosive themselves, and without having learned how to manage their emotions, they are at risk socially as well.
Learning Your Triggers
Somewhere along your journey, you’ve gotten armed with emotional triggers. It happens to all of us; these are survival responses that got coded in your brain way back when. To identify what triggers your anger, think back to a time when you felt a strong negative emotion toward your child. On recalling this particular moment, notice when your mood shifted. Triggers are something specific, so it may not be so easy to identify at first. For example, children fighting isn’t a trigger. That’s a circumstance. The key is what happens inside your mind and body when your children fight and why. Let’s break down a scenario of children fighting to discover the real trigger, which, in this case, is disrespect, so you can see what this process looks like
Disrespect makes me feel uncomfortable, giving me a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. This nervousness makes me agitated. Why does disrespect cause me to have these physical symptoms? What was I taught about disrespect as a child? What happened to me when my parents perceived I was being disrespectful? When my parent thought I was being disrespectful, I was punished. So, I perceived that my children are being disrespectful when they fight and that disrespect needs to be punished. Now I can see why my alarm is getting tripped. My brain is signaling that I must take action now to make these uncomfortable feelings stop. Once my alarm is tripped, I’m being flooded with hormones that increase my agitation and make me feel strong and aggressive, and I feel the need to release this horrible tension in my body, so I yell.”
Notice how the children fighting had little to do with the reaction. The circumstance merely set off a chain reaction. This is not an exercise to try during the heat of the moment. At that point, your agitated brain isn’t rational enough to think this through clearly. This is best done when you are calm and relaxed. Write down the scenarios that occur most often and look for the trigger by noticing the feelings and thoughts that often run through you during those times. This process helps you understand yourself better which leads to self-growth and allows you to look objectively at your anger cycle. When you are aware of your triggers and your usual response, you can then make a plan of action to change your response. For example, “The next time my children fight, I will separate everyone for a 5-minute cool-down and then we will work toward a solution when we are calm. I will let the children know this new plan now so they are aware beforehand.”
Ronald Potter-Efron, Ph.D., co-author of Letting Go of Anger, says that studies show that the neurological anger response lasts less than 2 seconds. Beyond that, it takes a commitment to stay angry. In other words, if you don’t add fuel to the fire, it will burn out really quickly. The problem is that it is so easy to add fuel when we feel wronged in some way, and it’s our negative thoughts that fan the flames. If we can train our minds by changing our thoughts, the whole family benefits.
Harnessing that short space between action and reaction is how we channel calm and keep from blowing up. Here are some tips:
- Count to 10. This is a popular method because, by the time you get to 10, that initial neurological response has passed and you should be able to rationalize more easily.
- Recite the Pledge of Allegiance, a short poem, or a mantra. You can try “this is not an emergency” or “I am a peaceful person.”
- Use your thumb to apply pressure in the crease of your wrist on the little-finger side. This acupressure point relieves tension.
- Close your eyes and visualize being grounded to the earth as peace and calm flow into your body.
- Do something physical, like jumping jacks or push-ups.
Verbalize your feelings. “I’m starting to feel upset at this. I think I should take a few breaths”