Something that surprises many mums (both new and more ‘experienced’ mums) is the anger that can erupt when parenting their children. Many mums in our therapy rooms have described episodes of anger that are like a red, hot, uncontrollable rage. The kind of rage that scares the kids, that the neighbours can hear or that may at times, be destructive. Oftentimes the trigger for this rage can seem like a small or minor inconvenience which can make these episodes even more confusing. Many women worry that having the occasional rage-filled moment with their kids means that they are a bad parent, or are ruining their children, however we can view this rage as a big neon sign telling us that some of our needs are not getting met. It is important to remember that anger is a normal emotion that is quite common and is not always negative.
Let’s now highlight the difference between anger and rage. We have all been angry at the kids for various reasons like not getting shoes on, eating breakfast at a snail’s pace or doing something unsafe but these are usually accompanied by feelings of exasperation, coupled with an ability to maintain some self-control, even if you are raising your voice. Rage however is more like an uncontrollable freight train that is loud, destructive, and scary to everyone, including the mother themselves. In these moments our thinking is impacted as the ‘emotional’ and ‘instinctual’ brain takes over- rendering the higher ‘rational’ part of the brain offline for a moment (a good description of this is ‘flipping your lid’ here). This can make us act in ways that might be incredibly scary and mums have reported occasions where they punched a wall, smashed their phone, or screamed so loud the house shook. Sometimes this one-off incident can be the impetus for mothers to reach out for support.
If you want to understand more about your own anger and frustration, we can break down maternal rage into some key parts:
Upstream – before the anger hits
Mid-stream – when the anger is occurring
Downstream – after the fact
So, the rest of this blog will focus on the upstream, midstream and downstream of anger and what we can do at each point.
Anger can be affected by things like sleep deprivation, changing hormonal states, isolation, lack of support, desire for control or other factors that are very common in the post-partum period. For many mums that come to therapy, their own needs are not getting met. Getting curious about the things that can lead to your anger is important upstream so that we can analyse the ‘why’ of your angry outbursts.
A key part of this work is considering what triggers your anger- is it talk back from your toddler, not being heard, mess or noise, or feeling touched out? This will be different for each person. If we think about the past examples of angry outbursts - was there a common theme? What is it about that theme that is impactful for you? How did I think about this situation at the time? Was I telling myself a particular story about the situation? For example, ‘my child is deliberately trying to make me angry’, ‘they are always trying to get what they want’, ‘whatever I do is never enough’, ‘no one cares about me’.
If rage also tells us we have unmet needs, how can we tap into those needs and honour them? Obviously, everyone has the basic needs of food, water, shelter, warmth, and safety but once these are met, we also have higher order needs like belonging, achievement and recognition. Outbursts of rage can be more common in the stay-at-home parent (often mum) as they usually lose their sense of belonging, achievement and recognition that can come with working. In terms of belonging, mums can feel lonely, isolated, have little social connectedness and no sense of their community around them. In terms of achievement, perhaps they have pressed pause on a job they love, have had to miss work opportunities due to child rearing or have limited access to training or education that might help them upskill. For recognition mothers might feel invisible, like their work is never finished, unappreciated or undervalued, especially when it is an ‘unpaid’ role.
So, when you read these lists about the higher order needs, are there some that stand out for you? How can you address that need? Are your needs different to those listed above? Do you need more regular breaks, more practical support at home? Finding out how these needs can be met can help to prevent us getting to that point again in future.
The point of considering things upstream (or before anger happens) is to notice triggers and consider ways that you can take care of yourself to avoid the extreme expressions of anger in future.
Mid-stream (i.e. when we are already angry!)
When considering the ‘in the moment’ strategies it can be useful to think about your basic needs (have I eaten, am I tired, have I moved my body today?) as well as what the anger feels like in your body, and what physical sensations happen just before the outbursts that let you know you are about to explode. Maybe it’s a rush of blood to your feet, maybe you feel hot, maybe your hands shake… whatever your signpost is, we can use this information to intervene in a meaningful way (there will not be one right way but a multitude of ways so you will need to find one that is meaningful to you). Once you have identified what happens when you are angry, you can come up with strategies that will work for you. Some ideas include:
Taking a sensory break (i.e. putting on noise cancelling headphones, touching something soft and soothing, having something very cold like ice)
Generating or looking at an image of your child that creates a feeling of compassion
Calling someone who can support you.
Coming up with a plan before these moments is vital as we know that once rage sets in, we can lose access to the rational brain that allows us to plan and come up with solutions.
From an emotional point of view, we know that before anger we always feel something else- it could be fear, embarrassment, frustration or hurt. The iceberg in the image above (from the Gottman Institute) is a great way to think about your anger as it highlights that the bits that everyone can ‘see’ (irritable with partner, snapping at kids, yelling for no reason) are just the outward expressions of a whole host of things that could be happening under the surface. This could include feelings of loneliness, boredom or being ‘stuck’, having a messy house or being overwhelmed with noises, hunger, clutter, sleep deprivation or needing a break. So, are there ways that you can manage the other feelings that might come beforehand? Some parents like to talk about their feelings with a friend or family member who can support them, use creativity as an outlet or write down some of their more challenging emotions. Whichever way you choose, it should be an outlet that enables you to release some of those feelings that can lead you down the angry path.
For many parents this downstream part will be totally new to them- it was certainly not common for parents to apologise to children previously. However, we know that being able to talk to your children about what happened can be an important part of the process. You might say:
“mummy was feeling angry about the broken mug because it was special to her, but I shouldn’t have raised my voice like that, and I am sorry- I am trying to get better at keeping my cool. Everyone gets angry sometimes but it’s not okay to be scary or hurt anyone”.
After an episode of anger where you behaved in ways that you were not happy with, there is an opportunity to reflect on the things that lead to the angry moment and consider how you might have behaved differently, what you would like to do in future and what you need to be able to do this.
The role of parenting is both relentless and thankless at times. It is no wonder mums are reporting more and more that these demands are leading to big feelings. One thing we commonly hear in therapy rooms (especially with clients who we have good rapport with) is that when they have had a moment of extreme anger or rage, they often keep this a secret. They will hide their shameful outbursts from friends, partners or family because many believe that it shows that they are not good mothers. However, we know that many women experience these moments- even very loving and dedicated mothers. This guilt is another blow for parents as it often stops them from dealing with the issues underlying the anger.
Many people are feeling incredibly burnt-out from the sheer act of parenting at the moment- with parents feeling pressure to be the perfect parent. This is only exacerbated by COVID lockdowns, pandemic stress, isolation, limited practical support, job loss, financial strain, as well as possible postnatal depression or anxiety. If you are seeking some additional support, please contact our team on (03) 9079 6930 or book your new client initial telephone call here.
For a more detailed look at the concepts detailed here and additional strategies see our pre-recorded webinar ‘Taming the Rage’ (50 minutes) which can be purchased from the Mums Matter Psychology website here.
Please note: In this blog we are talking about moments of anger that are scary – which is both normal and relatively common. However, if you or someone else is at risk because of your anger you need to seek urgent support and ensure that both you and others are safe. We know that an undercurrent of anger might be a sign that parents are suffering from depression or anxiety. If you think that is the case for you, it can be useful to make an appointment with a perinatal psychologist to be able to talk about your feelings in a safe space.