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:
- Describe what is happening without adding interpretation – Instead of “She’s throwing a tantrum,” say “She’s screaming and crying.”
- Say how you’re feeling without adding interpretation – Instead of “She’s trying to manipulate me,” say “I feel angry.”
- 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.”
- 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?