Anger is a normal feeling that we all have. The question, therefore, is not whether we are angry, but what it is that creates that anger and whether we feel we are in control of it.
The anger we are focusing mainly on here is the sudden kind of unpredictable anger that the child cannot understand. However, all forms of anger in parents can have a negative impact on children if they are a frequent part of everyday life. Parents themselves are often surprised at the force and unpredictability of their own anger. This kind of anger usually arises when someone is tired or stressed, and feels stuck, helpless or powerless in a situation with the child.
Parents want the best for their children, and want to be good parents. Despite this, many parents find that they frighten their children through anger or violent behaviour, and are worried about how this will affect the children. In the absence of solutions, most parents will play down the impact the anger has on their children and talk about it as little as possible.
Many parents who seek help with anger management want to break a generational pattern of anger. They don’t want to be as angry towards their own children as their mother or father was with them. For good or bad, childhood leaves its mark. How we are treated as children can affect how we interact with others as adults. If we felt we were treated without respect by our own parents, it is more likely that we will react with anger if we feel that we do not get the respect we expect from our own children. Old feelings of shame and injustice can bring on unnecessarily negative thoughts about ourselves or the child. We can then get into a vicious circle of negative thoughts and emotions, which increases the likelihood of anger.
Other parents find that they get angrier with their own children than their parents did with them. They may have difficulties understanding why they react so strongly, and feel ashamed of the anger to which they expose their children. This kind of anger may stem from people living stressful lives and making high demands of themselves. Well-intentioned attempts to do their best for their children and family end in anger and frustration. The anger management material can help to make us, as parents, aware that we always have a choice as to how we interpret a situation with the child. How we think of the child – as being disrespectful or absorbed in his/her own play – influences the emotions we experience and how we perceive the choices we have for how to act.
Cognitive method, the ABC model
Anger management for parents is based on a cognitive model that takes as its starting point the connection between thoughts, emotions and behaviour. We have an inner conversation with ourselves, often characterised by automatic negative thoughts that we are barely aware of. Common automatic negative thoughts for parents may be “I’m a bad parent” or “the child doesn’t respect me”. In the cognitive model, parents focus on these automatic negative thoughts, and learn how changing the way they think can lead to changes in the emotions they feel, presenting other ways of behaving towards the child.
The ABC model is widely used in cognitive therapy to help people work systematically to change thoughts, emotions and behaviour. “A” stands for situation, “B” for thought, and “C” for emotion and physical response. The ABC model is a way of illustrating the relationship between the situation, thoughts and emotions. Parents train their ability to be open to different interpretations (B) of the situation (A) with the child, become aware of negative thoughts (B) about themselves and the child, and gain better control of the resulting emotions (C).
Better anger management doesn’t happen all by itself: it has to be trained over time in situations with the child. A successful exercise gives a sense of mastery of the situation with the child, instead of a sense of powerlessness that increases the likelihood of anger and violence.