Yep, it’s OK to get angry at your kids—but it’s how you move past the anger that matters

My 2-year-old spilled a bowl of cereal all over our dining room. I got angry, but within seconds, I went from cleaning up the mess while expressing my frustration, to dancing joyfully with him to the Elmo Slide. A few hours later, he dumped mac and cheese on the floor. This time, I yelled loudly and was shaking with rage for what felt like an hour. 

Same kid, same bowl, same dining room, same day… very different reactions. 

Modern parenting styles, like the gentle parenting movement, would have me believe that my anger in both instances was a sign of an unregulated nervous system, but other thought leaders in parenting and neurobiology have a different (and frankly, more forgiving) stance. 

I wasn’t dysregulated simply because I got angry. I was dysregulated when I was unable to return to a place of calm, thanks to an overtaxed nervous system. When you look at the bigger picture of my day, it makes sense why I had such varied responses. In the morning, I had spent time building up my nourishment tank. I had meditated, journaled and enjoyed some pre-dawn silence. Yes, I got angry about the spilled cereal, but I was able to express my anger healthily and move on quickly. 

Conversely, the mac-and-cheese incident occurred at the end of a long day (and on a Sunday at that!). I had very little reserve left in my stress management tank. I exploded, then got stuck in my anger. 

A healthy nervous system is not one that never gets heightened. A healthy nervous system is one that is reflexive. 

Shedding light on ‘the myth of calm’

It’s important to reiterate that it’s OK to get angry as a parent. The Reconnected founders Emma Johnston and Eleanor Mann call the misguided narrative that parents should never show negative emotions around their kids “the myth of calm.” Johnston and Mann started The Reconnected parenting platform in 2019 and have grown it to a community of hundreds of thousands of parents worldwide. Both women are highly-trained breathwork specialists and Mann is also a counselor and play therapist. 

“More important than being calm is being authentic,” Johnston and Mann share with Motherly. “This is big work and often takes parents time, tools and support to find ways to express anger, frustration and overwhelm in a healthy way.” 

Managing your anger stems back to your nervous system

Our children are much more aware of our nervous systems than we might think, say Johnston and Mann. “Our kids can sense what is going on for us. If we are trying to appear calm but we are really suppressing other emotions, gritting our teeth, or about to explode, they see through it. Our nervous systems are always speaking—way before we say anything.”

Instead of focusing our energy on never getting upset, we can work on having a reflexive nervous system. This is the ability to go from reactions like anger or avoidance or shutdown back to calm and regulation quickly and consciously. 

Cynthia Agyeman-Anane, LCSW, LICSW, who founded Conversations Create Change, notes that we cannot just “shut off” our nervous system, but we can learn to fine tune our body’s responses by increasing our self-awareness. “Tuning into our bodies takes time, effort and energy to identify the activities and strategies and then do them consistently over time.”

In order for that to happen, it helps to get to know our nervous system and its many facets.

What parents need to know about the nervous system

You may not have ever sat down and thought about your nervous system, but I guarantee you are aware of it. That feeling of wanting to run away and book yourself into a hotel when you have multiple kids screaming for you at once? That’s your nervous system on overdrive. Snapping at your partner because they have the audacity to ask you something during a toddler meltdown? That’s your nervous system. Being frozen on your couch while the kids destroy your living room and not knowing where to begin? Nervous system. 

There are multiple parts to this intricate system, like the nerves that allow you to carry your sleeping child, who suddenly looks so cute and angelic, despite being a little monster just moments before. We’re going to focus on the aspect of our nervous system that influences our automatic responses and processes: the autonomic nervous system. This part governs all the functions of the bodies that we do not consciously think about, such as heart rate, digestion, immunity, hormone secretion, sleep cycles and breathing. 

Our main responses to stress are either fight or flight, which are considered up-regulated or heightened states, or freeze and appease (sometimes referred to as fawn), which are down-regulated states. When we are calm and settled, when we feel creative and free to choose our responses, we are in a state of homeostasis, sometimes known as “rest and digest.”

The misunderstanding in certain parenting circles right now is the implication that we are never supposed to get stressed around our kids. There’s a pressure and assumption that fight, flight, freeze and fawn are all “bad” reactions that should be overridden, even in the face of some incredibly challenging events. 

This is simply not true and may cause more stress than the stress we are pretending we are not experiencing. 

Instead, we should seek to have a reflexive nervous system. One that can respond to the environment, but also return to calm. 

Our kids are going to make us want to run for the hills sometimes. Our partners are going to make us want to pull our hair out (and theirs). These are normal reactions. By building up our tolerance to stress and implementing tools that help us come back to a place of calm more and more quickly, we can learn to ride the waves of our nervous system.

How to move past anger in parenting: Tips to regulate your nervous system

Here are five tips to help you both regulate and stay regulated.

1. Extended exhales

Breathing is both autonomic and something we can consciously control, which makes it an easy-to-access stress reducer. Exhaling longer than inhaling is proven to be calming. Jill Miller, C-IAYT, ERYT, author of Body by Breath and mom of two, calls this our “breath thermostat,” writing in her recent book: “You can change your physiological state within just a few breaths depending on how you adjust your rate of respiration and your breath pattern.” 

Johnston and Mann are also firm believers in breathwork for healing. “Our stored stress is held on a somatic-emotional level. Whilst talk therapy can definitely be helpful, it doesn’t release on a bodily level like breathwork.”

How to:

Get grounded. You don’t have to sit in a meditation seat or even get still, but do take a moment to orient yourself in your body so you are present and connected to your natural breath. Take a few cycles of undisturbed breath. Now, on your next inhale, count how long it takes to fill yourself with breath. Pause briefly. Then as you exhale, see if you can make it longer than your inhale. Agyeman-Anane suggests playing with a 4-7-8 ratio, meaning inhale for four, pause for seven and exhale for eight. Take ten rounds.

Turtleneck massage

Miller shared this practice in a recent live interview we did when I asked her what her go-to exercise was for calming down. 

How to: 

Take the heels of your hands to the center of your throat and wrap your hand and fingers around your neck lightly. Start by applying pressure to the heel of the hand and then begin to swipe the heels of your palm along your neck from the center of the throat up and outward until you reach your earlobes. Repeat as many times as needed, though five is a good starting point.

Shake it out

Have you ever seen those nature shows where the prey gets away from the predator and trembles? Shaking is a natural mammalian stress response. You will want to be in a space where you feel safe to express yourself without judgment. Kids love the shaking practice, so feel free to bring them in on the fun. There is no one way to shake; you can’t get it wrong! 

How to: 

Start standing. With your feet grounded on the floor, begin to shake your legs. Act as if you are trying to loosen the muscles from the bones. Work your way up to your hips and do a few hip shimmies. Then shake your tummy, trunk, and shoulder. Now, shake your hands up to your upper arms. Finally, shake your head. Now, see if you can shake your whole body. Enjoy and feel free to repeat!

Sing your heart out

Agyeman-Anane names vocal releases like gargling, humming or singing as calming exercises. “All these vocal exercises rely on short inhales and extended exhales, which enable the vagus to keep a person calm,” explains Miller. Singing is a great practice for when we are driving—and the kids can get involved too!

How to: 

Something to keep in mind is to notice which emotions your song choice elicits. If you are feeling frozen and low energy, you may want to opt for a more uplifting and energetic song. If you are feeling heightened, maybe choose a song that is less stimulating.

Legs up the wall

Inverting activates our baroreceptor reflex, which is a built-in heart slowing response to having our legs and/or hips higher than our brain. Miller explains this well in her book, “Baroreceptors are a specialized cluster of cells designed to gather information about your body’s blood pressure and quickly convey it to the brainstem so that blood pressure levels remain in a safe range. The baroreceptor reflex describes a feedback loop occurring in pressure sensors embedded within your carotid arteries (the big ones you can feel on the sides of your neck) and your aortic arch—the top of your aorta as it leaves your heart. They help safeguard your blood-brain barrier.”

How to: 

You’ll want to start sitting with your right hip as close to the wall as possible. Then lie down and swing your legs up the wall. Some people like to have a little rolled towel or blanket under their lower back. Your sit bones should be aiming directly toward the wall. If you find them rounding under and upward, try sliding back a few inches. Relax your arms out to the sides or rest them on your tummy. Stay for seven minutes (children-allowing).

Get angry for the kids

In addition to learning how to ride our body’s natural responses more effectively and efficiently, nervous system congruence is an important skill to model for our children. In other words, if you’re feeling angry, tell your kids. 

“Parents or caretakers are the number one source of safety from a child’s perspective,” say The Reconnected founders. “When we understand our nervous system more and how we respond to stress, we can find more safety in our emotions so we can choose how we respond in challenging moments instead of getting swept up in our triggers. This is true freedom as a parent and this modeling is really helpful for our kids.” 

I also think our kids model a reflexive nervous system for us, too. My 2-year-old can go from throwing his food angrily to laughing and dancing in an instant. Yep: We’re all teaching each other.

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