It’s OK to Get Mad

by Rita Brhel on July 30, 2009

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Good parents don’t get mad. They’re never tempted into power struggles with their children, no matter how violent a toddler’s tantrum or how venomous a pre-teen’s backtalk or how silent a teen’s cold shoulder. Good parents never have to raise their voices or say “no.”

Who is this good parent? It certainly isn’t me. But there is this myth about Attachment Parenting that we don’t get angry, that no matter what our children do, we are always calm and don’t experience the strong emotions that parents not practicing AP do.

Being an attached parent doesn’t mean we don’t experience emotions like anger, disappointment, and frustration. Oh, we experience them – just like any parent does! What being an attached parent means is that we choose to express these strong emotions in ways that don’t hurt our children. We choose to look inward to ourselves when we’re feeling angry, instead of blaming others, in order to see the real reason for our feelings. Instead of “You make me mad when you throw your bowl of food on the floor,” we teach ourselves to think, “I feel angry when you throw your bowl.” No one can “make us mad” – we make ourselves mad. It is our expectations we place on situations that don’t get met, and that is what makes us mad.

When I was starting out with Attachment Parenting, I believed the myth that good parents don’t get mad. So, I was trying to re-train myself to meet this impossibly high standard of perfection – one where I never felt angry, where I was always understanding, and where I knew exactly what to say or do in all situations. Ha, ha, ha!

It was while reading Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman that I learned that it’s OK to be angry. The book includes a quiz for parents to help them explore their feelings about experiencing strong emotions in themselves and their children. Before taking the quiz, I was sure that I was on the right track of teaching my children about handling strong emotions; after getting the results, I realized I was far from an expert. At that time, I was always striving to fix my children’s feelings of anger and sorrow and to help them learn how to deal with these feelings, too. But I learned through Gottman that I wasn’t truly accepting of these strong feelings in my children, or myself. For example, if my child seemed a little sad one day, I would do everything to try to make her feel better, and if nothing seemed to help, I would feel frustrated and eventually angry because I couldn’t fix the situation. I was scared of anger and melancholy and other strong emotions because I had grown up learning that these emotions needed to be avoided, or else, you appeared “weak” or “broken.”

In reality, feeling the full emotional spectrum including anger and sadness allows us to experience the fullness of life. The trick is to learn how to manage these strong emotions rather than allow them to control our behavior. For example, it’s OK to feel anger but it’s not OK to use that feeling as a justification to hit others.

How do we get from a place of “when I feel angry, I do things I regret without thinking” to a place of “when I feel angry, I can stop my knee-jerk reaction and choose a positive way of expressing this emotion”? First, we need to make the decision that some behaviors we may do as a knee-jerk responses are not appropriate under any condition. Then, we need to learn an appropriate way to express those strong emotions. API Co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker’s book, Attached at the Heart, has some great ideas, including an outline a basic Nonviolent Communication conflict resolution model:

  1. Describe what is happening without adding interpretation – Instead of “She’s throwing a tantrum,” say “She’s screaming and crying.”
  2. Say how you’re feeling without adding interpretation – Instead of “She’s trying to manipulate me,” say “I feel angry.”
  3. Say your need, rather than blaming the child’s actions – Instead of “I feel angry because you didn’t put your shoes on,” say “I feel angry because I’m in a hurry.”
  4. Make a request in a positive way, and if the child answers “no,” use it as an opportunity for further discussion, rather than turning it into a power struggle – Instead of “Put those shoes away now,” say “Would you put your shoes away so we can go?”

This is a tool that has worked well for me, although there are times when I am feeling so angry, that all I get out is “I feel very angry! I feel very unhappy!” before escaping to a parental timeout, until I am able to calm down and return to the situation with a clear mind. In what ways do you manage your anger?

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Rita Brhel (98 Posts)

Rita Brhel is the Publications Coordinator for Attachment Parenting International and Editor of Attached Family magazine. She is also an API Resource Leader and a WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor at Hastings, Nebraska, USA, where she lives with her husband and three children.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

ericka July 30, 2009 at 8:59 pm

i LOVE THIS!!! i absolutly love it. people get angry! its unavoidable. if you dont get angry over things once in a while, you need to figure out whats up because its just not normal! :P but at the same time, it is AWESOME to be able to be angry in a way that is sensible, logical. it is AWESOME that you are saying something that i hear so rarely in this world “I am angry because I….” instead of “you make me angry”. everyone is always looking for someone to blame! its ok to be angry, it is NOT ok to blame someone else for ANY feeling we choose to have. :D
i disagree that we should ever ask our children to do something that is required, but i would state “put your shoes away, we need to go” in a pleasant tone.
we confuse kids if we phrase something as a question when they are required to do it.

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Kelley July 31, 2009 at 8:01 am

This is so interesting! I talked about how we don’t want to overuse “no” in my last post because I don’t want it to become a knee-jerk response when I’m feeling frustrated or angry. The value of acknowledging and embracing your emotions is limitless, in my opinion. We are always talking about being gentle with our babies, but not fighting our feelings and choosing mindfulness instead is a great opportunity to be gentle with ourselves!

In most instances, I can see myself using a pleasant request rather than a command/power struggle. I see this as valuing my relationship with my son over things like backpacks or shoes being put away. However, even the best parents I know find themselves in situations where they are running late, they actually *need* to be somewhere (I’m thinking of a specialist doctors appointment that has been scheduled for months, for instance), and Bubs is being (for lack of a better/less pejorative word) uncooperative. How do you stay gentle and respectful of all involved in that situation, when you don’t have the time for further discussion, need cooperation, and aren’t getting it? I love thinking of why I would feel frustrated instead of blaming – I’m in a hurry, rather than you’re not cooperating – but that doesn’t change the actual fact of shoes aren’t on or we’re not in the car, know what I mean?

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LaughingFamily July 31, 2009 at 4:11 pm

I love the point that Ericka made about confusing kids with questions, when we aren’t making a request. This is a hard habit to break, as it is ingrained in us at a young age, but it makes such a difference. I love this example given in “Playful Parenting:”

“I saw a father and son in the grocery store…the boy was into everything, and the father was frustrated. At the checkout line, the boy tried to sneak a candy bar. The father said, with a hint of severity in his voice, “Put that back; you can’t have that.” The boy hung his head and sullenly put the candy back. The father softened his voice, “Nice try, though!” The boy smiled. “Do you want to carry the change, Danny?” the father asked, and the boy lit up.”

That dad got frustrated, and we’ve all been there before. And his initial reaction may not have been the quintessential AP response, but he ended on the right note. It is so easy for us as parents to get wrapped up in the moment, and say something in a less than ideal way. However, it is important to realize that we can fix those little mistakes with just a simple change in tone, a loving touch, and a heartfelt statement to our children. We are not perfect, and we do not expect them to be. This is our greatest lesson to them!

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Katie - PeanutSprout August 1, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Thank you for this. Your post really couldn’t be any more timely. Lately I have been struggling with being frustrated and angry with my kids in certain situations. I tell myself it’s just the age (20 months and almost 4), but I still feel guilty about the occasional (okay, daily) power struggles. Thank you for the reminder that it’s okay to be angry & for our children to be angry. But it is how we communicate our anger that will make a difference in how we raise our children.

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TheFeministBreeder September 23, 2009 at 11:04 pm

I’ve gotta get that book. Stat.

I have pretty serious anger issues that I am always working on. I’m certainly more patient and understanding around my children than I am with anyone else in my life, but not a single day goes by where I don’t say something to my pre-schooler through gritted teeth and bulging eyes. I look like that mom on Malcom and the Middle. I want to be more calm with them, and in turn, raise them without the anger issues I have harbored since my childhood.

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