And 4 strategies you can use to stop losing yours.
Parenting experts talk about tempers and anger a lot: how to control yourself, how to be more patient, how to respond positively to your child, etc; but I don’t see very many experts discussing why. Why do parents lose their tempers in the first place?
Personally, I’m all about the why. How can anyone solve a problem if they don’t know where it came from? Treating the symptoms without getting to the root virtually assures the problem will return. In fact, research has shown that trying to suppress or control your emotions actually makes them come back stronger later.
What this means is if you’re trying to control your temper through willpower alone, there’s a good chance you’re making it worse. To alter your temper, you have to understand what triggers it in the first place; and I’ll give you a hint: it’s not your children.If you're trying to control your temper through willpower alone, there's a good chance you're making it worse. Click To Tweet
Yes, you read that right.
I know, I know, children do things that make you crazy. I have four boys and the things they do make me feel crazy sometimes too, but their mistakes and antics aren’t what cause me to lose my temper. Your children’s antics and mistakes aren’t either.
The real reasons parents lose their temper go deeper than that, and when you identify and understand those reasons, the out-of-control feeling that comes when you lose your temper will largely evaporate. So with that in mind, here are four reasons parents lose their tempers:
They feel threatened.
There’s a part of our brain called the amygdala. Its job is to help us survive. When we feel threatened, the amygdala takes over. Our senses sharpen, logic suppresses and we go into “fight or flight” mode. If you’re adept at losing your temper, you know exactly what this feels like. Your chest constricts. Your heart races. Your breathing quickens and you prepare for battle. Dr. Siegel calls this an amygdala hijack. When your life is threatened, an amygdala hijack can be valuable. When you’re feeling threatened by something a child has done, getting ready for battle is less helpful.
Feeling threatened might mean feeling physically endangered, but not always. It might mean the hours of sleep you so desperately need are being threatened by a child who won’t go to bed. It might mean your pride is being threatened by a child’s humiliating or disrespectful behavior. Any time your sense of well-being is threatened somehow, you risk losing your temper.
How to stay in control when you feel threatened:
It’s helpful to understand that when you feel threatened, it’s a signal that you have needs which aren’t being met. Pay close attention to that signal. It matters.
For example, if your sleep is being threatened by a child who won’t go to bed, identify and meet the need that’s being threatened first. That could mean asking your spouse to go in late to work so you can sleep in. It could mean arranging for a babysitter to watch your children so you can nap the following day. Or it might mean letting your child sleep with you. How you choose to meet your need will depend on your goals, personality and available resources; but once you figure out how to meet it, your amygdala will settle down and you can respond to your child without falling apart.
They are pessimistic.
Pessimism refers to the way you talk to yourself. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, people with pessimistic habits tend to see challenges as personal, permanent and pervasive. For example, if you’re at church and your three-year-old strips down naked and starts running through the halls, you might tell yourself this is a signal of what’s to come (permanent). You might panic that he’s going to be a streaker when he grows up, that’s he’s going to get arrested, and that he’s going to spend the majority of his life in prison (pervasive). You might also believe that the behavior is all your fault because you haven’t taught him better (personal)!
Or, you could think to yourself, “Well, this is a phase I didn’t expect. I guess I’m going to have to come up with some kind of plan to entice him to keep his clothes on until he’s old enough to understand why we don’t run around naked.”
You can see how much easier it would be to recover from the second scenario than the first, even though both scenarios are describing the same situation; and you can probably see how pessimistic thoughts could lead to major overreactions, right?
How to stay in control when you’re a pessimist:
Learn to identify your pessimistic thoughts and consciously work on changing them to be more optimistic. Once you’re aware, these changes aren’t difficult to make, but some pessimists resist this change because they feel like optimism is false and unrealistic. If this describes you, try it anyway. As you practice making your thoughts more optimistic, you’ll probably find many of them are actually more realistic, not less.
With enough practice, optimistic thoughts will become more habitual and you won’t have to spend as much time consciously working through them. HERE is a more in depth explanation if you need additional help changing your pessimistic thought patterns.
They have a fixed mindset.
According to Dr. Carol S. Dweck, here are two types of mindsets: fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. People with fixed mindsets believe that abilities and character traits are set. You’re either good at math or you’re not. You’re either honest, or you’re not.
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe abilities and character traits are constantly growing and developing. If you flunk a math test, that might mean you need to study more or that you need some additional help from a tutor, not that you’re bad at math. If you tell a lie, it might be because you haven’t learned to value telling the truth yet or because you felt you had a good reason, not because you’re a liar.
Parents with fixed mindsets assume a child’s behavior is evidence of their his or her unchanging character. If a teenager sneaks out in the middle of the night, for example, a parent with a fixed mindset might assume that child is naturally devious and needs to be intimidated into staying out of prison.
Parents with growth mindsets assume a child’s behavior and character evolve as they learn and grow. If a teenager sneaks out in the middle of the night, a parent with a growth mindset might assume their child doesn’t fully understand the potential dangers and needs to be educated.
It’s much easier to feel pessimistic and threatened, and therefore to lose your temper, when you have a fixed mindset.
How to stay in control when you have a fixed mindset:
Pay attention to your thoughts and make note anytime you start to assume someone’s behavior is never going to change. If you’ve done my Parental Awareness Workout, you might have seen evidence of this already.
Next, work on changing your thoughts, and growing yourself. The more you believe in your own ability to change, the more you will see the potential in others, like your children. This process is an upward spiral and once you’re aware, it can take effect almost immediately.
The same post I mentioned above (HERE) is a great resource if you need more help changing your thoughts. If you want to go even deeper, there are two workbooks I can’t recommend strongly enough:
They take blame themselves for their children’s choices.
When your child does something well and you believe it evidence of your skills as a parent, it naturally follows that when your child does something wrong, you will believe it is evidence of your failures as a parent. Trying to stop feeling like a failure by forcing your child to behave is a common response. It often involves an amygdala hijack as well—and that never feels good no matter what age your children are.
This approach might seem to work when your children are toddlers because you can physically force them to behave, but it will destroy you from the inside when you have teenagers you can no longer force.
How to stay in control when you blame yourself for your children’s choices:
To put it simply, stop. You are only in control of your choices, no one else’s. All the best parents in the world have children who break rules, make mistakes and do things wrong. Your job is not to force compliance. Your job is to lead, love and accept. Set boundaries to keep your children safe. Enforce consequences (not punishments) when those boundaries are breached. Love your children no matter what and accept the fact that you are both going to make mistakes. Apologize when you mess up. Forgive when they mess up, and keep moving forward together.
This is the essence of parenting.
You and your children are growing everyday. Look for opportunities to grow, but also accept where you are right now. Do the best you can, and when you learn a better way, do better. Give your children the same luxury and then take a deep breath—because everything is going to work out.