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The science of anger in parenting

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

A fatherli guide to managing anger

Almost all dads have experienced anger or frustration at their child’s behaviour or actions of a partner. Often the topic surrounding anger is brushed over with the general consensus being that anger is not helpful in parenting and embarrassment that it occurs at all. But rarely do people talk beyond that, well given that anger is a human emotion, is it bad? Can angry words and actions have a negative effect their child? This blog hopes to tackle these following questions, along with more, with the ultimate goal of understanding how to manage anger.

First off, what’s the difference between anger and aggression?

The best way to differentiate between the two is by looking at their definitions:

Aggression is an action that you choose to take when you are angry. There are verbal aggressions and physical aggressions.

Anger is an emotional state that usually occurs because we are either frustrated or disappointed (Lakshiminarasimhan, 2018).

Anger does not always lead to aggression but aggression almost always results from feeling anger!

What are the types of anger?

There’s three main types of anger:

Passive Aggression

This is when we indirectly express our anger. We may say we are fine but our actions may say otherwise. For instance, we may say we are fine with doing someone a favour but may hold resentment towards them or display hostile and cynical attitudes towards them (Hall-Flavin, 2021). Some cultures are more passive aggressive than others (some might say British people use some passive aggressive language at times), with some cultures being more direct.

Direct aggression

This includes shouting, snarling, body movements, where we might try to rapidly control the situation. At worst it can look like fighting, breaking things or physical aggression. At times, such as a child running into a road, shouting may be appropriate but in other settings this can be unwarranted.

Assertive anger

This is when we feel the emotion, but are not controlled by it. We are able to stay calm, not raise our voice and say how we are feeling and try to understand how and why others are doing the things that they are doing that triggered our anger.

Why is anger bad for children?

Losing your temper can have adverse effects on your child. When you get angry towards your child, it may cause them severe stress as they may internalise your harsh words. Small phrases said in anger, “you're such a difficult child” can be hard for a child to forget. In the long term, hurtful words towards your child may result in your child finding it difficult to form social relationships (like friendships) as they may withdraw from social situations and become quiet in fear of upsetting others.

Not only that, unsurprisingly, physically harming your child can equally harm them and put them at risk of developing low self esteem, aggression and cause poor relationship developments (Pregnancy Birth & Baby, 2020).

Ultimately, constantly taking your anger out on your child or even in front of your child may lead to them developing a range of mental health problems in later life as children can often blame themselves for your angry outbursts!

What happens to your brain and body when you get angry?

When someone feels angry, one of the stress hormones, adrenaline, is released into the bloodstream. This triggers a cascade of physiological and psychological effects. The body and mind both become ready to react to actual or perceived sources of threat. Adrenaline causes heart rate to increase, it raises blood pressure, it increases the flow of blood to the muscles, it increases the rate at which someone sweats and it helps the individual become more sensitive to any changes in the environment. In short, the nervous system kicks in (Harvard Health, 2020).

This is referred to as the fight or flight response. It is automatic - someone does not consciously decide to release adrenaline (Britannica, 2022).

Adrenaline also affects the way in which someone thinks. Specifically, anger reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for forward planning, logic and reason. An angry person will quickly weigh up what is happening and make hasty decisions. This system is adaptive in some situations.

Anger can develop as a means of compensating for poor social and communication skills. If someone never learned how to express their needs in a healthy manner, they may become frustrated and therefore prone to fits of temper.


How can you manage anger?

Although it is completely normal to feel anger and children will test your limits and can cause some frustration, what matters is how YOU choose to deal with it.

If your child is doing something that makes you angry, count to 10 before you react. Try to use positive words or be specific about the behaviour. For example, Tom, can you keep the sand in the tray please as the kitchen is getting quite messy. Be sure to ensure that your child knows that it is their behaviour you don't like, not them.

If you do become angry, try and calm down before you respond. If you do snap, apologise for becoming angry or raising your voice. Show your child that occasionally being angry is human but that it’s important to take responsibility for it.

If it feels difficult to calm down, STOPP framework is an effective method that we can use to effectively manage anger (NHS, 2020). There are 5 stages to this framework:

  1. STOP: As soon as you release that you are getting triggered by something, stop doing anything.

  2. TAKE A BREATHE: then focus on your breathing. Breathe in from your nose and out your mouth. Repeat this till your heart rate comes down.

  3. OBSERVE: your thoughts and ask yourself what's triggering you? What sensations are you noticing in your body?

  4. PULL BACK: look at the bigger picture and try to look at a different perspective of this situation. Tell yourself whatever is angering you WILL PASS.

  5. PRACTICE: what do you normally do that calms you down? Do you need to step away from the situation? Take a long walk? Need to be with family and friends? Whatever is effective but appropriate do that. Don’t only think about yourself but others and how your next actions will impact them.

What if I regularly get angry, what should I do?

This can help you in the moment. Another tip developed by psychologists is to keep a diary or log of the events and circumstances that led you to get angry. Ask yourself:

  • What was the trigger for your outburst? Where were you?

  • How did you respond?

  • Why did it make you feel angry?

  • Did you feel any other emotions: sadness, disappointment, stress, anxiety and worry?

  • What could you do next time that might protect you and your child from you becoming angry?

Understandably, it’s hard to change behaviours overnight, but by understanding the circumstances that you lose your temper, you can slowly put what you need to reduce your anger around your child and contribute to a safer and happier family environment for them.

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