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Confessions of an Angry Mom

If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Dosso Dossi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I couldn’t stop myself from losing my temper with my son, even though I love him to the ends of the earth.  I would yank him away from a fight with his sister, and yell a lecture into his face.  When he responded by hitting and kicking me, I would hold his wild limbs way too tightly, pinning him to me until his rage finally turned to tears.  At that point, I would lecture him in a more calm way until I thought I had said enough for him to get the point.  Then I would go to my room and cry into my pillow.

I knew my explosiveness wasn’t solving anything.  It was undoubtedly making things worse.  But I didn’t know how to stop.  If a mother’s love wasn’t motivation enough for me to hold it in, nothing could be.  I had to go beyond motivation, beyond counting to ten.  I needed to change myself at a fundamental level.

Reasons for Anger

First, I had to understand why I was getting angry.  I realized over time that I lose my temper when:

  • I want to scare my kids into doing what I want
  • I am afraid I might not be a good enough mom
  • I am afraid of not being in control of my kids
  • I am afraid my kids might be controlling me
  • I snap from hearing too much of an annoying noise from my son
  • I am afraid of what other people think of my kids’ behavior
  • I am cranky from hunger, thirst, or having to use the bathroom
  • I am overwhelmed by other stress in my like
  • I am more comfortable with the emotion of anger than I am with fear, anxiety or sadness
  • I magnify a temporary behavior problem by fearing it will be a long-term problem
  • I suffer from too much caffeine, or caffeine withdrawal
  • I feel defensive about someone’s anger directed at me
  • It feels good to vent my anger
  • I have too-high expectations for what I — and my kids — should be able to accomplish
  • I don’t know what else to do.

Managing Triggers

Once I understood the reasons for my anger, I could recognize and manage the triggers.  I recently read something that angered me.  I went into the kitchen to cook dinner and started snapping at the kids about messes they had left on the table.  I realized the true source of my anger, and apologized to my kids.  Then I concentrated on prioritizing my family and letting go of my anger over something less important.

New Skills

The next big step was to learn new ways to discipline my kids.  According to psychologist Ross Greene in his excellent online videos, “Maladaptive behavior occurs when cognitive demands being placed on the individual exceed that person’s capacity to respond adaptively.”  The same was true for me.  I behaved badly in situations that exceeded my capabilities.  I had the faulty authoritarian skill set of trying to enforce obedience with fear and manipulation.

I started developing new skills of connection parenting.  These included listening, empathizing, and coaching.  I felt less panicky when I understood my kids better and knew better what to do.  The more confident I was, the less I worried about what other people thought.

More often nowadays, when my son starts trouble with his sister, I focus on defusing the situation.  I calmly suggest why I think he might be angry, instead of escalating the anger in the situation.  I lead him to separate himself from her and find a more appropriate method to resolve the dispute.  In turn, he is becoming more capable in these situations.

Peaceful Home

I still lose my temper.  But my outbursts are shorter and less intense.  I am less frustrated and volatile.  My husband has noticed that the mood in our home has become much more peaceful in the past few years.  He is no longer the victim of my barrages of desperate and unfair complaints about our children’s impossible behavior.  With perseverance, it really was possible to loosen the grip that anger had on our household.

I love feedback.  What do you think?  What are your triggers for anger?

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Zucchini Optimism

Grow, Little Zucchini!

Grow, Little Zucchini! Grow!

I would try positive thinking, but I don’t think it will work.

My zucchini plants are a real life example.  I spent about $140 on stuff for my garden, $60 of it on dirt.  “What, Mom?!  You’re BUYING dirt?”  Oh yes, kids.  It’s very good dirt.  It has cow poop in it.

So this year, I thought I’d add zucchini.  When I was growing up (in a different climate from here), it seemed like there was too much zucchini.  Someone was always giving away the extras from their garden.  So, I figured, it must be easy to grow.  Always one step behind, I began researching zucchini after I bought the plants and brought them home.

According to my local gardening book, the species of squash that includes zucchini is “the most easily killed by squash vine borer.”  And, “most organic efforts to thwart borers have proved failures.”  In spite of all this, I went through the hassle of making a 12″ deep, 24″ diameter hole and layering it with fertilizer and building a hill for each plant.  Well, maybe I cheated a little on the 24″ diameter.

I considered giving up, and just sticking them in the dirt without all the trouble of preparing the hill.  But then it struck me how optimism and pessimism are self-fulfilling.  If I believed the zucchini would fail, then I wouldn’t make the effort, thus causing them to fail.  But if I had faith in my little zucchini and made the effort, they might survive.

I’m still not convinced they will hold out, but at least they have a chance.  My little hills are sort of a symbol of hope.  I don’t suppose a person can be a gardener or farmer without some optimism.  And I’m counting on my kids to look for the tiny vine borer eggs, so that my designer dirt doesn’t go to waste.

Note: For a great Houston gardening book, check out Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston, by Bob Randall, Ph.D.

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How Dads Matter

Gerald R. Ford and Son (Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-US Gov't)

Gerald R. Ford and Son (Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-US Gov’t)

A pet peeve of mine is hearing people suggest that fathers are not important.  Or that fathers are the bumbling idiots you see on tv sitcoms.

Here is a video about the importance of dads.  Feminism is nice for equal rights and all, but let’s not forget that mothers are mothers and fathers are fathers.  The video is 15 minutes, but worth watching.  If that’s too long (or not), check out the two articles below from Psychology Today:

Here’s an article about the difference between a father being there and not being there.

Don’t skip this one even though it’s last.  Here are some really powerful statistics that will make you want to go hug your husband and thank your dad.

Thanks, Dad.

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Nice Things About Motherhood

I Love You, Mom

I’m going to take a break from analyzing and agonizing and appreciate how things are now.  This is in memory of Jane, who liked to say, “What a wonderful now.”

Ten nice things about my motherhood experience:

1.  My children are exuberant, interesting, and compassionate.

2. I’ve gotten a much better understanding of my parents and in-laws, now that I am a parent myself.

3. I’ve had to learn to be less serious and play more.

4. The kids talked me into getting a cat, and I really like our cat.

5. I can see tangible results from all the soul-searching and personal change I went through.

6. I think my children generally trust me and can talk to me about sensitive subjects.

7. I got to find out what a wonderful father my husband is.

8. I’m learning a lot of things I hadn’t learned before, like patience and relationship-building and raising tadpoles.

9. I love sitting on the couch, snuggling with the kids.

10. Things finally are more how I hoped they would be, and less how I feared they would be.

These are just the first ten that popped into my head, and not a complete list.  What is nice about motherhood for you?

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The Difficult Child

An example of an ankle sock

My son threw his sock across the room.  He had gotten it on as far as his toes this time.  “Hurry, we need to leave in five minutes,” I urged.  I tried helping him, and got the sock halfway on before he yanked it off and threw it again.  “It won’t go on,” he yelled.  I grouched back, “Well, it would go on if you wouldn’t keep yanking it off!  Come on, we should be out the door by now!”

It seems like a huge chunk of time in his early childhood was spent putting on socks and shoes.  The sock wouldn’t go on right.  And once it was on, it rubbed him the wrong way.  And we were late.  And he thwarted my attempts to help him.  And he wouldn’t wear the shoes “just this once until we get a pair that doesn’t hurt your toe.”  And let’s not even talk about underwear, shirt tags or loud noises.

Was it my imagination, or was I having a harder time of it than other moms seemed to be?  And was my son having a harder time of it than other kids?

It turns out, some kids are just more, well, difficult.  There, I said it.  He is spirited, he is intense, he is strong-willed, he is difficult.  He is much more difficult for me to deal with than my other child.  He is having a more difficult time than my other child.  Some people don’t like to hear me say a child is difficult.  But, it is the truth.

I don’t mean to say “difficult” as a value judgement.  Chess is more difficult than Candyland.  That is a good thing.  Wine is more difficult to make than grape juice.  It is well worth the extra effort.

The traits that make my son difficult will also be strengths as he refines them.  His gifts are worth an extra effort.   He is determined, he is high-energy, and he is sensitive.  I can’t be complacent with him.  I am a better person because of him.  When I handle things wrong, he doesn’t adapt; he freaks out until I pull myself together.  I can’t bark and expect him submit.  I have to dig deep down inside and make peace with myself, improve my interpersonal skills, and reduce my anger.

But what makes a child difficult?  I think the answer is two-fold.  I think I contributed to my son’s difficulties by being short-tempered and by failing to understand his moods and emotions.  But, I was relieved to find that there is an additional answer.  Some kids are born with a temperament that can be more difficult for parents to handle.

In her wonderful book, “Raising Your Spirited Child,” Mary Sheedy Kurcinka lists 5 characteristics of the “spirited” child: Intensity, Persistence, Sensitivity, Perceptiveness (aware of all sensory stimuli), and Adaptability.  Like about 10% of the population, my son has all of these.  He also has three of the four “bonus” qualities: Energy, First Reaction (negative initial reaction to something new), and Mood. (The fourth “bonus” quality was Regularity, and mercifully, he did keep to a regular eating/sleeping/waking schedule.)  I am not exaggerating when I call this the single most awesome book for understanding and helping a child who is frustrated and frustrating.  It helped me recognize the need to put myself in his uncomfortable shoes and see things from his perspective.
Raising Your Spirited Child Rev Ed: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic

I have to confess, though, that I felt validated when I read about psychologist Stella Chess.  She conducted a study of over 130 children in the 1950’s, and her research was a cornerstone of “Raising Your Spirited Child.”   However, she used the term, “Difficult babies” rather than “spirited.”  I guess hearing her use the word “difficult”made me feel less alone in my struggles.  My son wasn’t just spirited — that makes me think of a cheerleader.  We were seriously having real difficulty.

But, whatever you call it, “Raising Your Spirited Child” is an excellent resource for addressing each of the characteristics that presents a challenge.  Ms. Kurcinka encourages to the reader/parent and is respectful toward the child.  I tried to check out this book from my local library, and 11 people had it on hold before me.  That’s how good this book is.  And that’s how not alone you are, if this is what you’re looking for.  While you are waiting for the other 11 people to read it before you (or for it to come in from Amazon), I’ll tell you the most important thing I learned from the book:  Appreciate the challenges your child is facing.  Believe him when he says he can’t go on with that seam rubbing his toe.  Help him work through it, rather than fighting him.

In my case, I had the added challenge of being something of a “difficult baby” myself.  I am intense (quick-tempered), persistent (stubborn), and perceptive (distractible).  As I now read “Raising Your Spirited Child” for a second time, I try to apply the parenting techniques to understanding my own self.  I can’t teach my kids to manage their frustration if I haven’t figured out how to handle my own frustration.  And perhaps even more importantly, I can better appreciate their gifts when I begin to appreciate my own.

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Sins of the Father — and Mother

father child hands

As a kid in Sunday School, I did not like the part of Exodus 20:5 about “punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (New International Version 1984).  What kind of justice was that?  Then, I got to understand the importance of family history.  I realized that maybe this verse was not a criminal sentence.  Maybe it was simply an explanation of how things are.  Children are condemned to learn from the example of their parents.  It is the most powerful example they have in life.  This is more obvious in some families, where we can see a clear pattern.  For example, abused children can become abusive parents.

But it is more subtle, too.  Have you ever thought, “Wow, I sound just like my mother!”  My husband says, “Parenting is not just what you do.  It’s who you are.”  (I married up — he’s a genius!)  Children go beyond doing what you do.  They internalize and incorporate who you are into who they are.  How you feel about yourself.  How you handle (or suppress) feelings.  Maybe that’s why we surprise ourselves when we sound just like our mothers.  We don’t just consciously remember the words; maybe we actually take on the emotion of her response.

On the flip side, the rewards of the father — and mother — will be bestowed upon the children (for a thousand generations, according to Exodus 20:6).  The verse was not literally about parenting, but it applies well, I think.  Your children will inherit the relationships you are building.  When you build your relationship with your husband, you also influence how your children will build their relationship with their future spouses.  When you create connections with your children, you are also helping to develop their ability to connect with their children.

I remember the awful feeling I had when I realized my son might grow up to “marry his mother,” as many men do.  Would I want him to marry someone like me?  Back then, the answer was, “no!”  Now, I’m at a point where I think I could deal with that.  There have been times when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel and stop trying so hard to make things better.  Self-evaluation and self-improvement are a lot of work.  Holding back my temper is hard.  Connecting with the kids takes a conscious effort.  Falling down and getting back up again is a challenge.  But, hopefully, these efforts will be a gift for generations to come.

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The Perfect Parenting Formula

Large Resistance — isn’t that the truth?! Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-old

Ready for a laugh?  Here is how I thought the perfect parenting formula would work.  I thought I would establish rules, and my kids would mostly follow them.  Naturally, they would do this, because they love and respect me and I am wiser and bigger than they are.  And if they didn’t follow the rules, I would simply give them a disapproving look and speak firmly.  If necessary, I would impose a punishment or revoke a privilege.  Consistency would be the key.  Lots of articles and some books (including New Kid By Friday) reassured me that this formula would work.

On the flip side, I believed that if other people’s children were out of control, it was the parents’ fault.  Wild kids were obviously the result of overindulgence, giving in to whining, and failing to establish boundaries.

Some moms of compliant, “easy” children may be nodding their heads right now.  But moms of “spirited” children are probably thinking that I was the kind of woman who needed to get a serious reality check.  You can smirk now, because I got that reality check.  My second child, a girl, responded well to my formula.  But my first child, a boy, showed no interest in following any rules that did not suit him.  He did not seem to be impressed with my age, wisdom, or size.  If I wanted him to hurry, he would freak out about putting his shoes on.  If I wanted him to be quiet, he would shriek.  If I was stressed out, he dug his heels in on whatever I needed him to do.   He tested things (like toys and his little sister) by seeing what would happen if he whacked them.

I tried timeouts, and I got dents in the wall where he expressed his opinion about those.  I tried giving him a big bear hug and talking gently till he calmed down.  But to this, he just yelled, bit, kicked, and pinched until we were both in tears.  I know there were some parents who thought he was a candidate for a good spanking, and I am sorry to say, I tried that, too.  But I came to realize that all the force and coercion wasn’t working.   It was only proving to him how wrong I was.

And how wrong I was.  Lucky for me, he was a child who did not fear me.  His stubbornness forced me to find alternatives to my intimidation-based discipline strategy.  But that meant that everything I believed about parenting was falling through, and I had a huge gap to fill.  If that was the wrong formula, what was the right formula?  Like a mad scientist, I searched for years, reading everything I could get my hands on.  I’ve slowly discovered that parenting is more like a recipe than a formula.  There are many different ingredients, and you improve the mix over time through trial and error.  Different parents use different variations to suit different tastes.  Sometimes you have to change it up a little just for variety.  I don’t have one perfect recipe, but at least now my parenting doesn’t leave such a bad taste in our mouths anymore.  Stay tuned for my next post, in which I will outline the stages I went through during this process.

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