I remember the moment it happened. It felt like I’d slapped myself in the face. It was cold, but I had a sweat on in my smart work clothes, carrying three bags, stomping along after my children on their scooters. In my rush to get out the house to school and work, I got angry at my children.
Not just raised voices, but really angry.
I lost control of myself, physically manhandling them into their coats and shoes, picking them up and putting them outside the front door. I remember the deep feeling of shame, guilt and regret. My only saving grace was that nothing really bad actually happened, but it could have. I wasn’t in control.
I’m an angry dad, I thought. Something I never wanted to be, and I needed to fix it fast.
That was five years ago. Since then I’ve worked very hard to become patient and understand what it means to be a good dad. It’s been a journey of learning, self-experimentation, trying, failing and late-night reflection in a quiet house with a sleeping family.
I’ve learned about child development, what happens in our brains and bodies when we get angry, how to create the space between emotional reactions and real world actions.
I could and probably should write a book about it. I have written a blog, but for now, in a few hundred words, here are some of the most important things I’ve learned.
Your kids aren’t deliberately winding you up.
When we get angry, two things happen. We focus on ourselves and the moment — how they’ve made us feel, how much we’re trying — and we assume malicious intent.
I’ve realized they aren’t really trying to wind you up. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
The trigger for their action is either:
Something physical. They’re tired, hungry, thirsty or need the bathroom.
Something emotional. Friendship problems, or not getting enough of your attention because a sibling, work, or something else is getting more of it. Remember, you are one of the few people they love and depend on more than anyone else in the world.
Something evolutionary. They’re growing, their job is to learn about the world. The only way to do that properly is to try new things and see what happens. While the unintended consequence of their action might be your angry reaction, it wasn’t the motive.
And maybe once in a while, they are being malicious, the reason why might be buried a bit, but it will be there. If you don’t go hunting for it, you’ll never find it.
When you get angry, it’s painful for them.
Often when we get angry, we separate ourselves from the people around us. “Just give me some space,” or “I can’t deal with you right now.” We need this space to get back in control, but we need to create it in a way that our children know we will come back to them.
Our children love us. They want to make us happy. They want our attention and love. When we get angry at them, we attribute blame to them. This leaves them feeling regretful, sad, and at worst, ashamed. These are heavy emotions for a child to be left alone to deal with, especially a little one.
It takes some maturity to think back over a situation, realize what went wrong, admit your role in it, and tell yourself you can do better next time. It’s much easier to accept the story that you’re a naughty person.
When I learned this was the impact of my anger, I felt ashamed, but I used that feeling to help me change.
I still get angry sometimes, but when I do, I either tell them I’m feeling angry and that we will talk about it when I’ve calmed down, or if I don’t catch myself in time I always go back and take responsibility for my anger, apologizing if necessary, explaining if not.
It’s about repairing the relationship that was momentarily ruptured with an angry reaction, rather than leaving it to fix itself.
We’re going too fast.
Emails, WhatsApp messages, deadlines and to-do lists rule adult life. There’s always more to do and get done faster. Children move at a different pace. They’re learning how the world works and how to get what they need and want in it.
That’s a big job.
They’re learning to emotionally self-regulate (it starts showing at four or five and isn’t finished until they’re 25), to start and grow healthy relationships; they’re learning self-respect, perseverance, resilience, and they’re learning about themselves. This is hard work. It takes time. We’ve forgotten how hard it is, and how long it takes, because it’s mostly automatic for us now.
When we put our expectations ahead of what our children are developmentally capable of, we create a gap that gets filled with our impatience, frustration, anger, blame and their shame, because they haven’t met our expectations. But if we’re expecting more of them than they are capable of, the fault is ours. We may as well get cross because the moon doesn’t glow green. You don’t overcome this by lowering your expectations, you overcome this by learning where to accurately set them.
Which takes us to the final thought.
Your impatience and anger are your responsibility.
When you accept this and start to fix it, things change for the better. It’s not complicated, it’s not that hard, but you must stick at it. When you do, it’s not just your relationship with your children that gets better. Your self-control, ability to think clearly and relationship with yourself also improves.
If that’s not worth the work, I don’t know what is.