This week saw the mama bear in me roar when my daughter was hurt. The inability to soothe her pain in that moment and her sibling’s part in the matter made me feel extremely angry. I wanted to shout and reprimand and unleash my anger but I managed to catch myself just in time. Whilst my girls are small, their mindfulness practice is my mindfulness practice. What I model, they learn. So once I noticed the anger rising, I managed to pause. Just long enough to stop my instinctive response and think about what to do next.
There are many models of mindful tactics to use when working through difficult emotions and what they all aim to do is insert a pause between you feeling an emotion and then reacting. Often, this reaction happens so quickly that it feels like it becomes one with the emotion. We’ve acted on autopilot. And often what we autopilot is our learned behaviour from when we were children. This may be fine, or it may not be in line with how you intend to parent. Inserting a pause gives us just enough time to feel our emotion, appraise the situation and decide how to act next in a constructive way.
I use the CALM model because I find it easy to remember and just repeating the word sets a good intention for me in terms of how I want to respond to my anger. So here is how you can stay CALM when your angry buttons are pressed.
You can download a printable here how-to-stay-calm-when-youre-angry-printable
C – Catch your breath
Once you’ve recognised anger, the first thing to do is just focus on the breath momentarily. Give yourself some space to step away from any immediate reactions. If you can make the out breath longer than the in breath, this will also calm the nervous system and reduce the ‘flight or fight’ response you may be having.
It can be really helpful to explain what you’re doing as well if you’re with a small child. It can be something simple like “I’m feeling angry right now so I’m going to pause while I think about what to do next.”
A – Allow
Allow yourself to feel the emotion you’re having. We’re not trying to hide from the emotion or make it go away. Instead we’re trying to relate to it in a different way. For the moment, all you need to do is feel the emotion in your body. Where do you feel it? A tightness in your chest perhaps? Clenched hands? No need to try to change any of this, just allow it to be as it is. If it does change though, that’s ok too.
L – Listen
Listen to your thoughts with a sense of curiosity. Thoughts are not always accurate or true and you don’t have to act on them. Allow yourself to consider other options as well. In my case, I had thoughts such as ‘why is she always being mean to her sister? What is wrong with her?’ When I think about it a calmer state of mind I know that a lot of the time she’s actually really lovely to her sister. It’s also age appropriate to not know how to deal with big emotions in a reasonable way so there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with her. Reviewing our thoughts in this way gives us a better preparation for how we act next.
M – Move into action
We’ve spent the last 30-60 seconds inserting a pause so we don’t act automatically (this will get quicker with practice) and the next step is to proceed with intention. Only you will know how you hope to parent in this situation, but allow yourself to be guided by your greater intention (I hope to write a blog post about setting a parenting intention so I’ll come back and insert a link when I do). If you have familiar situations arising though, it may be worth preparing some phrases in advance so you can draw on them quickly when you are angry. For instance “I won’t let you hit your sister. I’m going to hold you while the angry feelings pass.”
It’s important to recognise that this new approach won’t work immediately. It will take some time to undo your unconscious habits and create new neural pathways through repeated practice. There are 4 stages of re-learning that you will likely go through.
- You’re caught in the auto-pilot response without even realising it. It’s only afterwards that you consider how you would have liked to respond differently.
- You feel angry and are aware of your automatic reaction happening but feel unable to stop it. This is really tough and you may feel like giving up at this stage. Keep going though because being able to observe your reaction is evidence that you’re already being more mindful. It will get better.
- You feel angry but you’re able to pause, avert the automatic reaction and take a different course. It may still feel difficult but you should feel good about responding with intention.
- You’re unlikely to feel angry about the behaviour and move easily into a calm, intentional response.
There will still likely be lots of times when you yell or shout or say things you wish you didn’t. Especially in the beginning. We’re only human after all. In these instances, we can still model a mindful and compassionate way to deal with mistakes that our children can learn from.
- Firstly, extend yourself some compassion and kindness. Your children love you. You are a good parent (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading about how to stay calm when you’re angry). We all make mistakes and that doesn’t make us bad people. If you’re feeling really low, like “I’m a terrible mother/father” then you may want to try a loving-kindness meditation.
- Explain the emotions you were feeling in language they can understand. This helps build emotional literacy so they can recognise their own emotions and have empathy for these emotions in others. For example “I felt really angry when you hit your sister. My heart was thumping and my body felt stiff. I felt like I wanted to shout.” Try to keep the language focused on you so they understand that your reaction was based on your emotions, not their actions. This teaches children that we have the resources to respond to our emotions in the manner we choose.
- Apologize in a positive way for your reaction. Humbleness is not a weakness and teaching children how to repair a mistake is a positive life skill. It might go something like “I’m sorry I shouted at you. I know that might have been scary. I’m learning how to respond more calmly when I’m angry but it may take a little time.” I know that when I’ve offered an apology to my daughter, she’s always accepted it with great grace and kindness. In fact, in the way I wish I responded to apologies as I’ve often been a bit begrudging in the past. Especially when I’ve been holding on to some hurt.
“Children make a lot of mistakes so these types of demonstrations are invaluable. Having an inner template of how to make amends can help children to avoid internalising a sense of failure, which can stop them from moving forward. If you are ultra-judgemental about your own mistakes and apologize profusely, or instead feel angrier and resentful, then this sends the message that mistakes are intolerable.” – Amber Hatch in Mindfulness for Parents
I hope this gives you some thoughts on how you can deal with anger calmly. I’m still re-learning my automatic reactions too but it gets better and better with time. If you have any comments or suggestions then I’d love to hear them.