“Your defining act of love for your child will not be the 2:00 A.M. feeding, the sleepless, fretful night spent beside him in the hospital, or the second job you took to pay for college. Your zenith will occur in the withering blast of frightening rage from your adolescent, in allowing no rage from yourself in response. Your finest moment may be your darkest. And you will be the parent.” ~ Michael J. Bradley~
Traditionally, I have not been great at managing anger and/or stress.
I come up upon it honestly, though. My dad was an Exploder. My mother, a Stuffer. I don’t blame my parents, but rarely did I see stress or anger managed in a healthy way in my home. In fact, I didn’t realize our way of handling it was unhealthy until I was in my mid-20s. Thus, I had a fully-developed volatile temperament at a very young age that continued well into adulthood. It has taken me decades of intentional, inner work to override all those natural and learned tendencies.
When I became a mother, and held that tiny, fragile, beautiful, perfect baby in my arms, I wondered how I’d ever feel anything but love, affection and adoration for him. I vowed right then and there to NEVER let my kids see me get angry.
I know. That’s hilarious.
If you want a life experience that will expose every last weakness in your character, especially poor anger management skills, I highly recommend parenting. It’s very efficient.
Like most children, my kids have been know to throw tantrums. They have ranged from very mild to irrational, lengthy and sometimes scary. So, the combination of my poor anger/stress management and my children’s propensity for throwing irrational, lengthy, often scary tantrums, has not been ideal.
I am embarrassed to admit, I’ve sometimes matched a kid tantrum for tantrum.
The child screams. I scream back.
The child cries. I cry harder.
The child throws something. I throw something, too.
The child slams a door. I slam it twice.
Then, when it’s all over, I give everyone the silent treatment for a few days.
I do not recommend this. This is terrible parenting.
Blessed are the parents whose kids stop throwing fits by age four, yea, even age six. For some of us, the tantrums never stop; they simply evolve.
But even those who stop throwing them at age six will probably resurrect them again in middle school and high school. I’ve talked to many parents whose children rarely threw tantrums as a toddler, but suddenly throw them as adolescents. They wonder what happened to their sweet, compliant cherub. They look all dazed and confused, with wild eyes and worn nerves.
I smile, warmly, and welcome them to The Club.
As a parent with underdeveloped anger management skills, a Teen Tantrum can be frightening for everyone. It brings out our absolute worst side.
It’s like our little family is on a white water rafting trip together. We’re happily drifting along the river, paddling calmly, chatting, enjoying the view, when suddenly we’re thrust into the rapids of a Teen Tantrum, rowing frantically, trying to keep our little raft afloat.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been white-water rafting, but it’s tempting to scream when you see the rapids approaching. I’ve done this (both rafting and screaming), and I can assure you, screaming does not help the impending situation. In fact, screaming can hurt you. Screaming can cause you and your raft mates to miss the guide’s instructions.
And then you will crash into rocks and smash your head open and die. (I exaggerate only slightly.)
So, here’s my best tip for navigating the Teen Tantrums, coming from a Mom who has done the exact opposite approximately one thousand times:
ABOVE ALL ELSE, KEEP YOUR COOL.
When your teen loses it, the absolute worst thing you can do is scream. Screaming hurts you and your child. When you match the child, meltdown for meltdown, there are immediate, negative consequences:
• You lose your leverage. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what the teen did to provoke your wrath. It doesn’t matter that he needs discipline, correction or guidance. The spotlight is on you, Mom or Dad, and YOUR childish behavior. Turns out, your teen is more than happy to get the spotlight off him and onto you.
• Your teen feels you are not a safe place because you are not a stable adult. He has made a mental note, consciously or subconsciously, that he cannot trust you with his heavy stuff. He will think twice about coming to you when he makes a horrible choice (drinking, drugs, sex, cheating, cutting class…) and needs to confess it or needs help. If he feels you are not a safe place, where will he go?
• It is impossible for you to think rationally when you’re screaming like a two-year-old. Take it from someone who has lost it on multiple occasions: When you lose your cool, you also lose your discretion. You will threaten ridiculous things. You will make little sense. You will say things you don’t mean. You will look like a fool.
When I was in therapy over this very issue, my therapist used to say profound things like, “When you child screams at you, you can’t take it personally.”
I would blink at him. And I would think, “Thank you. You are correct. That was a very profound and accurate thing to say. However, I have no idea how to translate that into real life.”
It took years of focused, dedicated work to learn to stay calm and composed while my children freaked out. While I still have a long way to go, this has been my biggest area of personal growth over the last year. So, here are some strategies I’ve adopted to help me translate it into real life:
1. Pray. I almost didn’t include this one, because it sounds so trite. But, prayer is my first line of defense for everything. I pray before and during difficult conversations. I pray if I start feeling a conversation escalating. I pray in the morning before I encounter anyone. I pray for my teen to manage his or her anger. I pray for myself to learn appropriate responses. I pray for self-control and patience and peace and kindness and gentleness for all of us. I pray early and often. I pray all day, actually. I never stop praying.
2. Envision yourself maintaining control. Sometimes when I know I need to have a difficult conversation with my teen, I picture myself staying completely calm. I practice scenarios in my mind: if he says this, I will respond calmly with this. “Seeing” myself handling the situation with restraint makes it more likely to play out in real life.
3. Walk away. When things start to escalate (they will, there’s no way to avoid it—you can’t even predict when, because teens are emotionally unstable), if I think I may not be able to handle the crossfire with grace and composure, I am honest with my teen and excuse myself.
I say, “I can feel myself getting angry and I really don’t want to lose it. I’m asking you to give me a few minutes to get my chiz together, and we can talk about this more later.”
Or, “I will talk with you when we can both talk calmly.”
Or, “I’m very angry right now and I need a few minutes. Please excuse me.”
I’ve had one child who sometimes refuses to give permission for me to leave. If you find yourself with a teen who insists you finish it now, I implore you: Hear him out. Then calmly say, “okay,” and LEAVE ANYWAY!
I speak from experience here. It will not end well if you stay.
After you leave, go into your room, close the door and punch your pillow. Pray. Call a friend. Go for a walk or a run. Give yourself the gift of time and do whatever you need to do to bring yourself back to center before you reengage your teen.
Your child doesn’t realize this, but you are giving him a gift, as well: The same gift of time to calm down and gain his composure. You are modeling healthy coping strategies for your child.
(The long-term benefits also include the minimal probability of your child ending up in therapy and/or blogging about you and your poor anger-management when he is in his 40s.)
4. Picture your teen as a toddler. When my kids were toddlers throwing tantrums, it was different. I, sometimes, found their tantrums to be humorous. I often felt compassion for them. I mean, it was maddening, but I didn’t freak out about it. I knew they were babies, and babies cry when they don’t get their way. Their toddler-brains were immature and underdeveloped, and they couldn’t help it. They didn’t even know what was best for them.
The same is true for your teen. Have you ever been watching your teen and something about their face reminds you of them as a toddler? Use that flashback to your advantage! Just looking at my teen and remembering his or her chubby toddler-face and giant toddler-eyes, makes me back off and realize they are still children and they still do not know what is best for them. This makes me feel compassion, rather than rage. And sometimes, also, humor.
5. Be the adult you want your kids to be. I have ingrained this mantra into my brain and repeat it incessantly when I am tempted to lose control. I keep thinking, “How do I want my child to respond to me right now? More importantly, how do I want my child to respond to THEIR kids in the future? How do I want my child to respond to her future husband or his future wife?” And I try to act it out. This strategy helps me remove the emotion from the situation, and, instead, turns it into more of a demonstration than a reaction.
6. Imagine how you would act if someone else were in the room watching you. Most of us who struggle with anger or stress management can hold it together in public. Unless we are complete sociopaths, we don’t go off when our friends, coworkers or strangers are in the room. We save our uncontrolled selves for our spouses and children. (Sad, but true.)
If you find yourself in an anger-provoking confrontation with your teen, imagine your boss standing there watching you. Or your next-door neighbor. Or your child’s teacher. I know it’s weird, but I always picture my pastor standing there watching me. I would never freak out in front of my pastor.
I still blow it on occasion. But when I do, I immediately apologize and ask for forgiveness. Of course, things go better when I don’t blow it at all. But when I immediately apologize—when I acknowledge my poor reaction and ask for forgiveness—it shows my teen that I value self-control and mutual respect, even when I screw it up. It also models for my kids a way to make it right when they screw it up.
Finally, Mom and Dad, some really good news: Self-control is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Every time you hold your tongue and respond in love, it’s easier to do it the next time, and the next time, and the next time. Then, before you know it, all your hard work pays off, and self-control becomes your new temperament. And this becomes the legacy you pass on to your kids.