“Sometimes my three-year-old makes me just want to scream!” says Anna, an at-home mother. “He either doesn’t listen to a word I say, or he answers me back. And usually his answer is no!”
What parent has never become angry at their child? Probably none. And, in fact, any parent who hasn’t ever “lost it” with regard to their child’s behaviour is one who might well be worried. A parent who never runs into conflict with their child probably isn’t doing a good job of parenting and training.
“For me, it’s the screaming and the tantrums, espcially in public places”, says Dorothy, of her two-year-old. Other ways our children make us angry include their whining, dawdling (when we’re in a hurry), and bickering with their siblings.
“During the ages of two to four, most of these things are common. Later on the behaviours change and more often than not they lead to respect and friendship,” says Gabie Berliner, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker. (That’s a relief!)
But why do these behaviours have to happen in the first place? Understanding the reasons behind them can help parents deal with the problems and not take them personally.
Separation is usually the first thing that’s going on with this age group. Young children want to take control of their lives and are in the process of figuring out how to do this. This can lead to temper tantrums and exhaustion when everything gets overwhelming for them. Parents need to understand that little children don’t have the coping skills that adults do.
“Every developmental leap also has a downside. The child loses something,” says Berliner. “When the child walks, the world opens up to them, but then he or she doesn’t get carried anymore, so they miss that nurturing.” This may lead to a child being more whiny or clingy.
In addition, this age lacks the vocabulary to express their feelings, so they act out. It helps to realise they’re not doing it deliberately to upset you.
Temperament can also be a factor in causing a conflict situation. If you’re a fast-paced individual and your child is slow and deliberate, that could set the scene for clashes.
Despite all the reasons for your child acting in a way that provokes your anger, it’s important to realise all your child really wants in the end is your love.
“A child wants a positive relationship and love from the parent,” states Berliner. “When they’re driving you up the wall, it’s hard to imagine that’s the same child who just wants you to love them. It’s as if they need to know at what point your love stops. So they do the opposite of what you’d expect from someone trying to win your love—they act out. They’re doing this simply because they don’t understand the strong feelings going on inside them, like their hunger for love and their need for your approval.”
Understanding why the maddening behaviours happen must be accompanied by knowing when it is you’re most likely to get angry. Some mothers experience feelings of anger at particular times—when they’re trying to leave the house or are in a hurry (in this case allow extra time); when they’re under stress or tired (try to schedule a rest time or swap a few hours of babysitting with another mum); when their spouse is not doing their share of parenting (come to an agreement on this), when their expectations are too high (lower them), when they feel frustrated because they’re trying to get something else done (it might be easier to drop the idea or do it at another time, perhaps when your child is napping), or when you’re on the phone.
The phone problem is a very common one. It’s often an issue because your child sees you as giving someone else attention. Some parents get over this by keeping a box of “favourite” toys within reach that comes out only when they are on the phone.
Above all, take heart then in knowing that there are strategies you can use that will help. The first thing to do is recognise when you’re tired or stressed or in a hurry. If you get to the boiling point, it’s a good idea to express your feelings. (“Mummy’s patience has run out right now, and I have to have a time out!”) Then go into another room. The bathroom is often a good choice, because there you can lock the door, splash water on your face, even take a shower, with the noise of the water signalling that there’s no point in pursuing mummy further. It also covers any noise going on outside until you can compose yourself.
Distraction is also good, whether that means turning on the music, or everyone leaving the house for another activity. For example, taking the dog for a walk or going to feed the ducks or the birds in the park. The change of scene and some exercise will likely calm you both down.
Of course if you can prevent an anger situation in the first place, all the better, and this is ultimately the best solution. Or try asking yourself, Why is this making me angry? What is the real issue here? For instance, in a busy supermarket, you might feel that you are under scrutiny from other adults. If this is the case, know that most parents have been through the same thing and will sympathise.
And don’t forget the importance of picking the battles you will fight. Berliner advises, “List all the things that make you mad, then choose the two worst ones. Cross everything else out and tell yourself that they are the only things you’ll ever get mad about. Ask yourself if you really want to spend all your time battling over every little detail.”
Of course, a better choice is to have nothing left on the list, and to stay in full control. Anger is isn’t a pretty sight in a supermarket aisle, after all.
When we learn to stop wanting ourselves or our youngsters to live up to some “ideal,” we learn to
stop getting angry at the things that shouldn’t matter.
And that can only be good news for ourselves and our children.