Parenting can test our patience in ways we never expected. But there are some thoughts that can add to the fear and anger of frustrating moments, making it more likely that you’ll lose your temper.
This post isn’t about silencing your brain from having these negative thoughts; it’s about giving those thoughts a little nod but then doing what you can to stop them. Find what works for you as a mental circuit breaker. For some people, overwhelming thoughts are calmed by counting, prayer, or singing a song – anything to short-circuit the thoughts that keep adding to your feelings of helplessness, fear, or rage.
You don’t have to know the answer to the situation to stop the cascade of negative parenting thoughts. And you can come back to the thoughts in the future, once you’ve calmed down, to do more effective problem-solving.
1. “Here we go again…”
You set dinner on the table, and your son makes a face. In your mind, you see it all – how you’ll tell him to stop, how he’ll make a rude remark back, how angry you’ll feel. Dinner’s ruined before it’s even begun.
What’s happening: When you predict the future of the argument, it helps set your brain on that path. It gives your mind a practice run for how things will go. Do we really want to practice ugly arguments?
Possibility: When you notice yourself thinking along these lines, ask yourself if this is a chance to try something different or at least allow for a different possible ending.
2. “NO! This is NOT how this was supposed to happen!“
You thought you’d get up early and have an hour to yourself; you’re imagining how nice that quiet cup of coffee will be when you hear your toddler’s chatty little voice – NOOOooooo!!!
What’s happening: Children have a knack for changing our plans, and sometimes it’s very hard to re-adjust our expectations.
Possibility: Before you bark at her to go BACK to bed, flash forward to what this morning will be like if you set it up for anger. You can yell and cause drama when events don’t unfold the way you want, or you can take a breath and face reality. (I know it’s not fun, but you have the choice to do this.) What choice can you make now? If you are disappointed, will it help to add a crying child to the mix?
3. “I suck. I’m such a bad mom. I should have…”
I don’t need to tell you a scenario when guilt shows up. Many of us battle guilt on a daily basis.
What’s happening: The more you dwell on your guilt, the more you feel injured by your own self-loathing, and the more likely you are to lash out at your child because of it.
Possibility: There will always be a zillion expectations about the things you should do. There’s no way to meet them all. And, sure, sometimes you’ll mess up. Remember that we all make mistakes; we are human. Mistakes are a chance to learn and grow. Stop beating yourself up and instead give yourself some grace. You can look for what new tool you need, and you can try and do better next time, but ultimately, you’re probably doing better than you think.
4. “He’s going to fail. He’ll wind up addicted to drugs. He’ll ruin his life.….”
Your five-year-old hits his brother and grins. Suddenly, you’re seeing a psychopath in the making, and your temper flares.
What’s happening: Fear – we see a behavior right now and blow it up into all kinds of terrible things that it might say about the future. This awfulizing fuels more fear, causing us to feel panicky and out of control – and then we are more likely to lash out in anger.
Possibility: Focus on the now. This is the present moment, and the future you’re making up is not real. If your fears are very large, ask yourself: Can I put aside this fear until later when I can think more rationally about it? Later, you might journal about: What can I do to prevent my fears from overwhelming me? Will making some plans help? Who can I talk to about this fear to get some perspective?
5. “What is WRONG with him??”
Your child seems to always be the kid who can’t handle changes. All the other kids seem fine, but you’re dealing with a meltdown.
What’s happening: Thinking this leads to wondering if your child is inherently flawed. That is frightening and painful.
Possibility: Two things: First, there may actually be something going on with your child that needs investigation by a doctor, a counselor, or another professional. There’s nothing to be ashamed of with this. You’re being a great parent when you search for answers to get yourself and your child the help they need. Secondly, your child has bad days just like anyone else. We can teach our children that everyone has their ups and downs and they’re safe to make mistakes or be imperfect. This will allow them to learn and grow from mistakes and to feel accepted and loved as their whole selves.
6. “Why does she do this to me?!“
Your daughter is melting down AGAIN about getting ready for school. She does this every morning while the other kids are quiet. You begin thinking what a brat she is – how she always ruins things with her screaming fits. Why does she do this to you? She knows you hate screaming!
What’s happening: When we take our kid’s anger personally, we wind up acting from a place of injury and resentment.
Possibility: You are the grown-up, sometimes the easiest way to remember this is to think, “What are you, a two (three, four…) year old?!” and likely that will cue you in, that, yes, they are a child, they will have many times of being difficult as they learn to navigate the world. Also, when I feel resentful, I take it as a reminder that it’s time for me to find a way to get a break – call a babysitter or plan a play date in the near future.
7. “This is always going to be like this. What have I done with my life? “
Do you remember that feeling when you were getting woken up every night by your crying baby?
What’s happening: Sometimes, we start to think that a certain phase is permanent; it’s just how it is, and that kind of thinking leads us to feel depressed, hopeless, and stuck.
Possibility: Focus on the thought that “Everything is a phase.” One thing I know to be true about parenting is that it’s always changing and evolving. You have a chance every day to make little shifts as to how things will change, but if you have no idea what the right thing to do is, at least know that if you wait long enough, you will have something different to deal with.
8. “Ooh! I could just SMACK that kid!!”
You’re so angry that you picture hitting your child or other acts of aggression.
What’s happening: This thought puts a picture of violence in your head, and if you actually formulate it this way by saying “that kid,” it disconnects you a little from your child. He becomes “that kid” in your mind instead of “my son.”
Possibility: Short-circuit this thought by picturing something completely different (I mention using visualization in this post about dealing with parenting rage), or if you can, bringing up a picture of your child as a perfect infant trusting and in need of your love.
9. “I can’t give in!”
You said something like, “You need to brush your teeth,” and your child is digging in their heels, saying NO, and you’re NOT going to let them win.
What’s happening: I hate these situations when I want to be the ‘consistent and calm parent’ that I’ve heard so much about, but instead, I feel cornered and wind up in a huge power struggle with my child.
Possibility: Would asking your child if they need a hug work? Is this something you can let go of now and come back to? The answer to how to end the power struggle varies greatly with each situation, but noticing you’re in one and stepping back from it, leaving the room, or stopping talking can help.
10. “They’ll think I’m a terrible mom.”
You’re in the grocery store, and your child is screeching and hitting you. Wow, you feel lame.
What’s happening: When we focus on what everyone else is thinking, we begin to feel ashamed and desperate, and our child takes the heat of our embarrassment.
Possibility: Is there any way to move to a quiet corner or leave the store? And for the future, you might feel best if you have some tools you’ve thought about ahead of time so that you know what you’ll say and how you’ll act.
When you feel yourself filling with rage at your child, this is not the time to increase that rage by falling into any of the thought patterns listed in this post. Instead of letting these thoughts fuel your frustration, we’re here to nudge you toward a more mindful path. If we can get in the habit of stepping away from these dangerous thoughts, we give ourselves a chance to choose positive interactions instead of reacting with anger or threats.
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Alissa Zorn is an author, and founder of the website Overthought This. She's a coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa is certified through the International Coach Federation and got her Trauma-Informed Coaching certification from Moving the Human Spirit. She wrote Bounceback Parenting: A Field Guide for Creating Connection, Not Perfection, and is always following curiosity to find her next creative endeavor.