This title is the chorus line from a catchy 1970 Sesame Street song. It is sung to the tune of the hit, Get a Job, and performed by a troupe of hiply dressed Muppets. Boy, did they hit the nail on the head with this skit! Children, in their virtually powerless position, get mad for more reasons than are mentioned in these song lyrics (friends won’t share, scraped knee, etc.). For the parent of an almost three-year-old, anger is a frequently erupting emotion—and I’m not only talking about from the child in this scenario.
Yes, I’m taking parental anger out of the closet and dusting it off. I am holding this still-somewhat-shameful and definitely-utterly-frustrating topic up in the light of day. Sometimes it is a seemingly small thing, like whining, that wears on my nerves. Other moments, it feels as if someone has pulled the plug on my patience and I watch, helpless, as it all flows down the drain. Now, I’ll say it: sometimes I get really mad at my child—super mad—maybe even more-mad-than-I-have-ever-been-before mad. I’m wagering I am not alone in this dilemma, so a couple of questions remain: “Why?” and “What can we do about it?”
As for one big reason why: Our kids push the buttons of our own unresolved emotions—anger included. When we were young, we got mad. It is likely that our anger was either ignored: “She’s just doing that to get attention,” or met with some sort of anger in return: “Don’t you dare talk to me that way!” This being the case, it can only be fruitful to explore the question, “How was anger handled in my upbringing?” I have found many a gem of understanding after mining the depths of that question. It has been an unexpected path to clarity, helping me think better and respond more sensibly to my child.
Generally speaking, strong feelings in our culture are met with the urge to separate (Time-out!) or suppress (Calm down!) I think it’s time we add another option to this menu. Feelings, even the less comfortable anger, are important messages for us to pay attention to. But how do we stop the unhealthy cycle of repressed anger??
First, let’s take a big step a-w-a-y from the desire for compliance and inch toward cooperation instead. Then take separation, suppression, and ignoring off the menu of responses and recognize that a child having feelings, (even big, messy, tantrum-y feelings) is good and necessary for their well-being. Knowing this helps me not take the fury personally and remain warm and connected throughout the meltdown. This assists kids who are experiencing intense feelings—and by assist, I mean facilitate, not shut-down. When we are cooperative and respectful and don’t judge or stop a child’s feelings, then a child, once finished with the feelings, will become cooperative and respectful themselves.
However, this works best when we refrain from using the temporary fixes of diversion and distraction. I find it easier to set aside these oh-so-tempting tools once I realize that often the need driving the outburst is to actually just have the feeling. When I can muster the attention to provide space for this, it feels like my child magically resets his inner clock—equilibrium and optimum function are restored.
Just this morning, my son and I both had some explosive feelings. It was a classic case of preschool resistance. Once he finally got into his car seat, I went back inside to get an item he was insisting on having. Out of his sight and hearing range, I kicked the bathroom door and swore loudly. (Note to self: When I am exasperated and resenting whatever I’m doing for my son, it’s a pretty clear sign that I should have simply said “no” and listened to his feelings about it.) I then took a deep breath and headed out to the car. Reminding myself that he must need to express himself, I calmly acknowledged his distress the entire way to school.
After parking and climbing in the back seat with him, he continued to wail, fight my proximity, and be, well, very angry. He told me, “Go away!” “Don’t be near me,” and “I want to hit you!” I told him I wouldn’t let him hit me, that I was going to stay right there with him, and that it was okay to be upset. After about fifteen minutes (yes, I was late to work) he calmed down and was ready to go into school. Even with a nod to my earlier perspective shift and steadfast commitment to his emotional offload, this felt like a small miracle.
First printed in the May/June 2011 issue of Parent & Family