Matthew McKay, Ph.D., spent two years studying parental anger and its effects on children. McKay points to research showing that children of angry parents were more likely to be aggressive and distant. In adolescence, they struggled in nearly every important area of their lives: academic, social, and emotional. Some even suffered bouts of depression. And the effects spill over into adulthood as well. Growing up in an angry home often leads to difficulties with careers, relationships, and even mental health.
"If you are screaming nearly every day, it's a rare child who won't be hurt by that," says McKay. "On the other hand, conflict once a month, or even once a week, isn't necessarily harmful. It just can't be perceived as a personal attack or a physical threat."
In other words, there's a big difference between yelling, "I'm so angry" and yelling at your child, "You've really messed up this time," or between slamming your fist on the counter and slamming your child into his chair.
One of the greatest shields against the effects of an occasional blow-up is a strong and loving relationship with your child, according to Heidi Feldman, M.D., chief of general academic pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"If you have a positive relationship with your child, and vice versa, so that your children are securely attached to you and enjoy your company, if you lose your temper from time to time, it's very different than if a parent doesn't have a good relationship," she explains. "A child can endure a lot as long as his basic needs are being met."
You don't need to mask your disapproval or disappointment either. Anger is a healthy human emotion, Feldman adds. It's appropriate to give your child honest feedback about his behavior and your reaction to it.
"It's perfectly fine to say, `I don't like it when you do that.' You can even say it with passion, because it's OK for the child to know how his behavior affects you," Feldman advises. "But the calmer you can be, the more your child will listen."
How to Short-circuit Your Own Rage
McKay recommends developing an anger-control plan in advance for situations that you find particularly provocative, such as getting ready for school in the morning.
"Once you've identified the problem," advises McKay, "get a sense of what your trigger thought is, such as `She's lazy' or `She's ignoring me.' Then try to examine why your child might be behaving that way. Does it have something to do with her temperament? Maybe she doesn't adjust well to new activities, or she's at a developmental stage where she just can't do what you're asking. Or maybe there are other needs."
Whatever the case, McKay suggests developing an explanation for yourself, such as "My child has a hard time concentrating in the morning. It's nothing personal; I can cope with this."
Then change what you do. Clue into your warning signs before you get enraged. I find myself clenching my teeth when my girls' volume goes up to a certain level and I'm feeling stressed. McKay says this is the time to practice a relaxation technique, like reminding yourself to take a breath, so you can get control of your anger. Don't be afraid to enlist your spouse's help if you need to excuse yourself and have him or her take over.
Finally, change what you say. You can tell your child that you're frustrated when she doesn't get dressed and it makes you both late. You can offer her a choice: either dressing herself or having you choose her clothes. Then describe the consequences: "We'll leave for school in 20 minutes whether you're dressed or not."
"The bottom line," says McKay, "is that parents are not helpless when it comes to anger. You can learn to control it, change how you behave and how you talk to your child."
Anger Action Plan
When you feel yourself heating up, stop long enough to identify what you're really thinking. Then you can replace negative thoughts with neutral ones.
Situation: Your toddler keeps standing up in his booster seat, even though you've told him it's dangerous and he must sit down.
Trigger thought: "He's defying me. He never listens."
Turnaround thought: "It's nothing personal. Kids this age are too curious to sit still. I just have to take him out of his chair and finish feeding him later."
Situation: Your 3-year-old throws tantrums when you try to get her ready in the morning.
Trigger thought: "She's impossible. I can't stand this."
Turnaround thought: "She has a hard time waking up; she'll be better after she gets something to eat. I can change our routine and feed her first."
Situation: Your 6-year-old tells you he didn't break your calculator when you know that he did.
Trigger thought: "He's deliberately lying to me. He's so disrespectful."
Turnaround thought: "So what if he's testing me? That's normal at his age. Maybe he's really scared that I'll get mad."