Feelings of anger, perhaps even rage, towards your baby or toddler can be pretty confronting emotions to acknowledge and may be underlined by a sense of guilt, failure or shame. Our capacity for anger towards our offspring might even scare us at times, especially if in the heat of the moment we feel at risk of losing self-control. Perhaps your baby is immune to your attempts to settle them to sleep, or they want to be fed or held constantly, or your toddler’s tendency towards tantrums and mischief is reaching new extremes. Our relationships with our children are complex and emotive, and like any close relationship there will always be periods of conflict as well as peace. Often, toddlers test boundaries with their parents not only because it’s a normal, healthy stage of development but because they know their parents offer a safe space to experiment with the limits imposed upon them against a backdrop of unconditional love.
Knowing this doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for us however, and we all have different triggers that make us see red – mine is incessant whining, or having my toddler sabotage my attempts to settle his sister to sleep (no easy feat, even without the sabotage). And we all have different means of expressing our anger, whether that’s by allowing it to build up over time before we eventually explode, yelling at the top of our lungs, or drafting a sales pitch for our child on eBay. One thing’s for sure, a certain type of brain fog seems to overtake and overpower us in the moment, making it hard to approach the situation rationally like the adults we are. Instead, we often enter into unproductive headlocks with our children, refusing to back down. This rarely leads to a win-win outcome and can make it near impossible to take control of the situation like the leaders we are, role-modelling to our children a healthier means of managing this very human, entirely normal emotion that they too will experience many times in their lifetime.
As a hormonal, chronically sleep-deprived, full-time mother of two young children aged 20 months apart with limited local support; exploring more constructive means of managing my anger is very important to me, and I’ve found it helpful to mull over the following points to help keep things in perspective:
- See Your Child
Look at your son or daughter. Notice how tiny they are compared to you. Focus on their little hands, little arms, little legs, little fingers, their soft cheeks and wide, innocent eyes. Count how many times one of their little limbs would fit into yours. Notice how big you are by contrast; how tall you stand, how solid and full-grown your frame, how loud your voice is – especially when raised in anger. See your son or daughter for the young child they really are, an independent person with an independent will who has yet to fully grow, develop and mature; and be aware of your own physical presence and strength in comparison to theirs, their defencelessness, and how those things might combine to be perceived by your little one when you are in the midst of expressing your anger towards them. Remember that your child is entirely dependent on you for all their needs to be met, and they do not have the capacity to anticipate risk or protect themselves from harm. There is a vulnerability and power imbalance inherent in any parent-child relationship (or adult-child relationship), and it is our job to be the safe person they need at all times, the person they can always rely on and trust no matter what.
- Don’t do Anything in Private You’d be Ashamed to do in Public
Never say or do anything to your child out of anger in the privacy of your own home that you wouldn’t do in public – whether that’s entering into a power-struggle with your child, throwing a screaming fit, swearing, name-calling, or resorting to physical chastisement such as smacking. This should give you a stronger sense of appropriate boundaries in the heat of the moment, and save you a lot of parental guilt later. Try to remember that any consistently negative messages you might project towards your child (such as ‘you are such a naughty boy/girl’) may be internalised by them over time until they think it is a true reflection of who they are. In these formative years, there is no-one else on earth capable of loving your child to the greatest depths that you do as their parent; and it is our responsibility to embrace their whole being, warts and all, and reassure them that we love and accept them unconditionally even when they get things wrong – which they undoubtedly will (just as we do). Their future sense of self-worth, safety and security depends on it – we provide those fundamental building blocks as they establish their own unique identity just as our parents (hopefully) did for us. And if they didn’t? Well, we know how that felt…
- It’s Not Me, It’s You
Is your baby/toddler sick? Teething? Hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Overwhelmed or overstimulated? Adjusting to a big change such as a new sibling? Either of these things can derail a toddler pretty quickly and cause them to become more challenging and unsettled than usual. Try taking a step back from whatever it is you’re doing and address the underlying need as soon as possible, whether that’s by offering a snack, a drink, a nap, some time out, or even just a cuddle. I recently visited a new play café with my toddler where there were a lot of children and adults crammed into quite a confined space. There were lots of great toys and my son was having a ball for the first half-hour or so, before quickly losing control and fighting with other children over toys then spiraling into tears and tantrums. It was quite prolonged, which isn’t like him, and it drew a lot of attention to us which made me feel a bit embarrassed. The best thing I could think of to do was to remove him from this highly-stimulating environment and take him outside where I held him close until he calmed down whilst my mum ordered him lunch. We didn’t return until he’d stopped crying and had something to eat and drink, by which point quite a few people had left, then he played happily in this calmer environment for the remainder of the session. If those measures hadn’t worked, we’d have simply gone home. I’ve consistently found with my son that when his behaviour is more difficult than usual, there’s usually a pretty good underlying reason that may not be immediately obvious (for instance, at the start of an illness). And if the reason for the change in behaviour is related to a big change such as a new sibling, the best thing we can do is allow them time to adjust. We all need an emotional outlet, but young children can’t articulate how they’re feeling about a situation like we can, so instead they show us through their behaviour. I see this as an opportunity to acknowledge my son’s feelings and increase the amount of hugs and quality time.
- It’s Not You, It’s Me
Are you feeling tired? Hungry? Stressed? Anxious? Are you sick? Overwhelmed with tasks? Feeling burdened, overwhelmed or resentful? Have you had an argument with your spouse, a poor nights’ sleep, or a difficult shift at work? Are you simply lacking in a bit of me-time? If so, it’s likely that your anger reaction to your baby/toddler is really just an outlet for a deeper need of your own – a need to replenish yourself. It is hard to keep giving to others when your own reserves are running on empty, so make it a priority to do whatever you need to do to put some fuel back into your tanks. It’s ok to put your baby down or set your toddler in front of an activity and go to the toilet or wash those dishes or eat your breakfast. Sometimes it’s ok to say no. And if you’re child gets upset, they’ll live – their basic needs are met and you’ll be with them again in a few minutes, hopefully feeling somewhat refreshed!
- Our Babies/Toddlers Cannot Empathise With Us
We’re stressed out, overwhelmed and chronically sleep-deprived, and now our baby or toddler seems intent on pushing our buttons with no regard for our feelings and what that’s doing to us. On top of that we might be balancing work with a mountain of daily chores, and be feeling like all we do is give, give, give with little in the way of thanks. I find that often, underlying our anger is a whole lot of hurt. But the truth is, our baby or toddler is yet to have the capacity to interpret or regulate their own emotions, let alone ours. They are simply incapable of perceiving the impact their behaviour is having on us, so the best thing we can do is accept them at the place of development they’re at and be the adult who helps them regulate themselves when they’re feeling out of control – because if we’re feeling out of control, chances are they are too but they have far less inner resources than we do to rein themselves back in. Your toddler is never going to say to you, ‘Hey Mum, you’re looking a bit worn out from taking care of me all day, why don’t you lie on the couch and take a breather and look after you for a change?’ They’re far more likely to climb all over you on the couch whilst making demands of you to play, give them a snack, or show them YouTube videos on your phone. Needless to say, this is completely normal behaviour. Your toddler cannot empathise with you. You must protect yourself by taking whatever measures you can to take some well-earned me-time, without guilt. If this means making some adjustments with your spouse or seeking the support of your family or a childcare service so that you can take some time out, so be it.
- Are Your Expectations Too High?
Maybe you’re sitting in a café with your baby/toddler and they won’t keep still, or you’ve bumped into an old friend and your little one is becoming impatient and wanting to move on, or your toddler is throwing a tantrum because they’re not ready to leave the playground, or your 1-year-old won’t share their toy or is taking toys from other children. Though these behaviours make our lives a little more hectic and it can be hard to sit and have a civilised meal or conversation, they’re all completely normal baby/toddler behaviours and this needs to be planned and accommodated for. Whether you bring snacks and a couple of books or toys along with you to the meal, or balance a sit-down activity with a run-around activity before or after, or simply expect and accept some resistance when you leave the playground even if you’ve given a warning first, these strategies might make things run a little more smoothly next time – but they won’t be fail-safe. Often, we just need to meet our babies/toddlers we’re they’re at, and accept that it is part of normal development for them to resist us, for them to assert their independence at any opportunity, and to push and test. It’s also normal for them to have a hard time calming themselves down. But in a few years’ time, these things will hopefully be none-issues or at least a whole lot better than they are right now.
- Is Your Reaction an Over-Reaction?
Perhaps you’re angry that your child has shown you up in public, or in front of someone who’s opinion you value, or who has a history of criticising your parenting. Perhaps you’re anxious that your child’s misbehaviour reflects badly on you and your abilities, or perhaps you’re projecting years ahead into the future worrying about how they might turn out if they keep doing X – even if X is totally normal for their age and stage of development. Perhaps your reaction is an over-reaction because your perception of what has occurred is a little off-whack. Try to moderate your reaction by keeping it relative to the cause.
- Are you Picking Your Battles Wisely?
I don’t know about you, but on the worst days, the days where it feels like you and your toddler are butting heads all day, I end up feeling pretty disconnected from my son and it makes me sad. Maybe he feels that too? All I want after a day like that is an opportunity to bond and reconnect – and I make a point of nap and bedtimes being our true 1-1 bonding/connecting time, no matter what has passed between us. I read recently that it takes something like as many as 5 times the number of positive comments to offset a negative comment towards either an adult or a child. That’s not to say that negative interaction should be avoided at all costs – sometimes it is necessary, healthy even – but to maintain a strong relationship on both sides, there needs to be a sense of balance. That’s why I think it’s really important to only fight the battles that are worth fighting, and to let the other stuff go. I try to incorporate into every day an opportunity for my toddler to just be a toddler – to jump and climb and run off steam and be the 2-year old adventurer and explorer he is without me telling him not to in case he damages the furniture.
- Are You Acting Your Age?
I am 32 years older than my toddler son, and 34 years older than my baby daughter. And yet, sometimes I find myself entering into a power-struggle with my son, forgetting in that moment that he is just a 2-year-old who has every right to act like a 2-year-old. I, however, do not have the right to act like a 2-year-old. My responsibility is to stay calm and weather the storm and to lead by example. When I complained to my Grandma recently that my son was being difficult, her response was that I should be grateful for him asserting his independence and getting up to mischief because it is an entirely normal, age-appropriate thing for him to do, and that I would have more right to be worried if he wasn’t doing those things. I’m so grateful for the wisdom that comes with age and experience, because she was totally right, of course.
- Have You Created a Double-Standard?
Perhaps you’re angry that your child, with so much less experience than us in managing big and scary emotions, is failing to self-regulate, and yet aren’t you doing just that yourself? Despite having all the benefits that come with adulthood, including greater life experience, maturity and wisdom, we can still succumb to emotional disregulation and have a hard time reining ourselves back in, not unlike our toddlers. No one is delightful all of the time, we have our bad days and our children are entitled to them too.
- Are Your Boundaries Clear and Consistent?
I was at a café recently with my son, and another slightly older boy sitting opposite was presenting his mother with some pretty challenging behaviour. She repeatedly promised him an ice cream if he stopped engaging in that behaviour and did what she wanted, and he repeatedly did the opposite. The result? She bought him an ice cream a few minutes later. She looked pretty worn down and I felt for her, but I got the impression her son knew fine well that he would get an ice cream either way. If it had’ve been me in that position, there’d have been no ice cream – but I can totally understand how easy it is to fall into such habits because there have been plenty of situations in which I’ve found myself at a loss as to what to do. Even though my toddler doesn’t fully understand, I have gotten into the habit of letting him know in advance what is happening next, because transitions are always a trigger point for resistance even if it’s a transition that works out in his favour. I know he will still resist pretty much every time, but I expect and allow for that and it tends to blow over pretty quickly because he knows I mean what I say and will follow through.
- Do you resent your child?
One of the areas I find very triggering is when I’m trying to put my baby daughter to sleep, and no matter how much time and effort I put into the task it just doesn’t happen, or it takes forever, or I have to keep starting all over again until my much-anticipated little chunk of me-time is almost gone. In those moments it can be hard not to get resentful after a full day (and night) of give, give, give, do, do, do. Rationally I know that she isn’t doing it on purpose – she just needs my help, but it’s stressful and time-consuming as I count the minutes ticking away. Perhaps you resent how your life has changed since having children, and the relentless demands and endless tasks and mammoth responsibility that comes with it. Perhaps you miss freedom and spontaneity and sleep. And that’s valid – parenting involves a great deal of sacrifice and the rewards aren’t always immediate and obvious. But it’s important to remember that your child didn’t get a choice in any of this – they had no control over whether or not to be brought into this world and they can’t help being who they are. Remember: ‘A child’s shoulders were not built to carry the weight of their parents’ choices.’
- Drawing a Line in the Sand
My personal value around discipline is to role-model a non-violent approach to my children, therefore the line I have set myself is to avoid the use of smacking (or any other physical chastisement) as an approach to behaviour management as far as possible. I can’t help thinking that ruling by fear would be unacceptable in pretty much any other context, therefore I don’t think it has a place in my parenting. That doesn’t mean I won’t physically remove my child from a situation if necessary (such as the time he ran out into a road, or the time he kept hanging off our towel rail as if it was a climbing frame), but otherwise the onus is on me to think creatively around how to establish and maintain boundaries in often testing situations when my patience and energy are running low, through a series of trial and error and without resorting to smacking. Even in situations where nothing is working or I just don’t know what else to do, my line has been drawn and it is my responsibility to do what I need to do not to cross it.
- When all Else Fails: WAIT
In reality, these suggestions are unlikely to help us in the heat of the moment, because when we are angry we tend to lose the ability to rationalise. In those instances, I think we need only remind ourselves of one little word: WAIT. The WAIT gives us a brief interval to reflect first, react second; which overrides our body’s natural anger-response which is to react first, reflect second. This can lead to an over the top or unconstructive response from us, followed by a hefty dose of parental guilt. If waiting means we ensure our baby/toddler is put in a safe space whilst we take some time out to self-regulate before coming back to them, even if they’re screaming or crying the entire time it’s far safer all round that we take this time out to collect ourselves and regroup. WAITING will not hurt our child, but acting out of anger, frustration and a loss of control in the moment just might. So, if you take nothing from this article other than that one thing, waiting is a pretty good place to start.
Above all, remember that anger is a completely normal human emotion you don’t have to berate yourself for having. If we as a society we continue to sweep our experiences of anger towards children under the carpet, we’re not going to get very far in our wrestle of how to better deal with it. Just like us (and our parents and grandparents before us), our children will ALL grapple with this powerful emotion throughout their lives, and I think one of the best gifts we can give them is to start role-modelling more positive ways of how to manage our anger now. If we get it wrong at times, which we surely will, then an apology is always a good place to start – I think you will find that young children tend to be very gracious, and we can reflect on and learn from the experience and manage it better next time – we’re not going to be short of opportunities! The baby and toddler years are intense and demanding, but they are just a season and the season will pass – faster than we think – and there’s a whole lot of wonder, cuteness, hilarity, fun and love to embrace in amongst it all too that we don’t want to miss out on.
I follow Janet Lansbury on Facebook, a strong advocate of a respectful approach to parenting babies and young children who has written some excellent articles on the subject, many of which detail some helpful strategies for setting boundaries and limits. I find many of her articles a valuable, informative resource and I try to incorporate the principles of her approach into my day-day parenting. I particularly enjoyed her recent article, ‘I Think I know Why You’re Yelling,’ which advocates an alternative means of setting boundaries with our children and is well worth a read. I also loved, ‘What Your Toddler Thinks of Discipline,’ which touches on many of these themes and helps us empathise with what our toddler might be thinking and feeling when we are disciplining them.
This parenting gig is hard and exposes many of our weaknesses, but it also reveals a great many strengths we might not have known we possessed. We are all flawed and we will never get it exactly right – all we can do is the best we can by our children, and be open to continual change and growth.
Best of luck to you,
Do you have any strategies you could share on how you manage your anger towards your children?
NOTE: The way we manage our anger, for better or worse, is often underpinned by the example we ourselves experienced growing up, and can be complicated by a history of abuse or as a result of historical or current mental health issues including anxiety and depression. If you are concerned about your own feelings of anger towards your child, I urge you to prioritise your own well-being and that of your children by seeking emotional support as soon as possible. Someone can work with you on identifying the underlying problem and assist you in developing safer strategies to deal with this powerful emotion in your day to day life as a parent. Your GP, Maternal Child Health Nurse or a parenting helpline such as Parentline (VIC: 13 22 89) could be a good place to start.