Do you find yourself melting down like the Wicked Witch of the West? Here’s how to find your inner Dorothy.
Of course I can’t remember what the argument was about. Or even if it was an argument. I do, however, recall the look in my daughter’s green eyes as they took in a display of maternal histrionics that she had not witnessed in her seven years. I saw her flinch, and take cover. I saw her see me, as I gave in to a no-holds-barred, all-bets-off, block-up-your ears mommy meltdown. That I remember. And so that’s the scene. A wide eyed little girl keeping herself out of the line of fire; a mother going off like a tin plate in a microwave. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Bad, bad, bad. Normal, normal, normal.
The impulse to express anger is as natural as a double-talking politician. Everything that breathes is capable of losing its temper. Even squirrels get angry. In truth, we all have the capacity to behave like two-year-olds. We’re only removed from this fist-flailing, sneaker-stamping version of ourselves by the flimsy screen of experience and social convention. Oh, and it’s a nasty place, the other side of that divide. Anger even feeds into diseases such as stroke, cancer, indigestion and skin disease.
Adding kids to the mix
Nobody promised that becoming a mother world would exempt you from the occasional human impulse to empty your junk drawer on the kitchen floor or send a colander of raspberries so violently against the wall that the stain on your semigloss never really goes away. Indeed, many experts believe that having a child dramatically increases the likelihood of occasionally relinquishing all grip on reason. And women, not men, are particularly vulnerable to this release, given their unique situation in the family unit. “As much as we might now have equality, we really don’t,” says Toronto parenting educator Beverley Cathcart-Ross. Women still tend to be the primary caregivers, and have much more exposure to their children and their children’s prickly idiosyncracies. Mothers, she points out, are the “worry centre” of the household, and they haul around with them enough practical, emotional and mental cargo to seriously overload. Sometimes, the burden is too much, and the cables snap.
Stress is a big trigger for the anger gun.
Dr. Latchman Narain, an anger-management specialist in Toronto, says stress can swiftly translate into fury and loss of control. “A woman needs to be very aware of the levels of stress in her life,” Dr. Narain says. The best response to this self-knowledge, of course, is to intervene before the whole thing flies off the rails and paints your walls in raspberry juice.
Renata Kiel was in a beach wrap when she lost it. “It’s all your father’s fault, he wrecked it for all of us,” the single mother wailed to her three startled kids on a cottage getaway one summer weekend. It was a starting point in a performance that went rapidly downhill, and included a hurled-against-the-wall portable phone and a threat to jump in the car and just drive. “I remember every moment,” Kiel says, more than a year after the tirade. “I still think about it. I don’t think I’ve forgiven myself.” Do, urges Dr. Narain. In fact, capitalize on the moment. Flip a positive spin onto the negative. “It’s OK to say I’m sorry to your child, and to teach him that sometimes life can be difficult,” he says.
You bet, says Alice Wiafe, a Mississauga, Ont., psychotherapist with a specialty in anger management. She believes that children need to know that anger is natural, normal and worthy of respect. And a child’s ability to say, “Mommy, I’m angry,” is valuable, and rescues them from a life of anger-avoidance and all of its emerging by-products. One caveat, though, is that the anger has to come with the follow-through. Wiafe says, “When they see mommy getting angry and losing it, they have to see problem-solving. You’re going to get angry, sure. But what are you going to do with it?”
From a calm place, try to understand the monster that sometimes stretches across your bones. Anger is like road rage, says Wiafe. “Only road rage is never about the actual road; it’s just people taking out their anger on the other driver. Maybe it’s pent-up stress from weeks of working hard, not feeling appreciated, not getting help. But if you feel a tantrum coming on, know that that’s the end stage of anger, the most dangerous phase when you lose yourself and do things that you wouldn’t normally do. And that’s because you didn’t do anything from stage one to eight, and now you’ve hit nine or 10. Anger wants expression.” We’re talking here about the mom whose cup is so full of anger, everyone would do well to brace for a spill. “We get to that place, that kid place, as adults,” says Wiafe. And it’s not good. This is the point in rage’s arc where there’s actually a physical reaction at play, where a person’s blood rushes into her muscles and deprives her brain and makes her stupid. “When people are talking, they’re fine; when they’re not, they’re vulnerable to tantrum and rage.” And if all of this advice arrives with the raspberries already mid-flight, take counsel from how the junior members of society surface from a temper tantrum. Get yourself a lollipop and go back to bed.
Dr. Narain suggests:
- Talking it out
- Counting till you’re out of numbers
- Going for a walk
- Having some coffee with a friend
- Expressing your feelings. Sharing your frustrations helps.
- Practising mindfulness. This concept that started India years ago has emerged from the sidelines of new-age thinking and has spread to the rest of the globe. Mindfulness really means that you’re living inside each moment, with your consciousness focused neither in the past nor the future, but in the present. “When you practise mindful living, you slow down a little bit. And when you’re focusing on whatever’s happening in that moment, bringing your presence to that place will help you to be less reactive, more proactive, less emotional.”
In the split second before match meets fuse, ask yourself a few critical questions:
What is the message I want to give my child?
Is this my problem or my child’s?
Could my child learn from this?
Am I encouraging long-term goals and life skills, or discouraging them?
the instantaneous consideration of your responses, you might decide
that the long-term payoff is preferable to the short-term relief a blast
of anger rage might provide. Don’t forget the basics, like good food
and rest. It’s amazing how much more prepared a person can feel to face a
tantrum-trigger episode on a full tank of nutrition and sleep.
Pratt is a mother of four, ages eight to 14, living in Toronto. She has
written about parental involvement in schools and living single in
recentissues of ParentsCanada. She hardly ever loses her temper any
Published in October, 2010.