This morning I was running late for work. Last night, rather than tidying and preparing lunches for school, I was tired. I decided to put my feet up: I watched tv, and I chatted with my husband. Shirking the evening household responsibilities felt great! But as a result, this morning I was running late. My morning agenda read: get ready, get kids ready, get lunches ready, drive kids to school, drive self to work. However, my six year old daughter had a different agenda. Despite the many times I informed her that I was running late and that we needed to get out the door, she dawdled.
The reality is, I was frustrated with myself for not being prepared for the morning – and sadly I found myself directing this frustration at my daughter. As I saw myself nagging ineffectively, I noticed my inner dialog also changing: “Why can’t she just help me with this? She is so disrespectful…”. Funny thing about such negative, labeling comments – they seem to always intensify angry feelings.
Researchers McKay and Fanning (1996), call these ‘trigger thoughts’ because the thoughts tend to trigger in us negative emotions. When parents are stressed, thinking thoughts that serve to magnify, label, and assume intent distort the situation – these thoughts make the situation seem worse than it is, and make your child’s behaviour seem deliberate and bad.
Trigger thoughts lead parents to forget the real reasons behind their child’s behaviour (such as developmental level, reinforcement history, needs, temperament, and so forth). And, as the trigger thoughts spiral us into anger, we are left feeling helpless. Once we cool down and the situation is over, we are still left with an unresolved issue and have now lost an opportunity to problem solve with our child(ren).
Trigger thoughts also have a negative impact on our kids. When our anger prevents us from seeing a situation clearly and acknowledging underlying causes of behaviour, we send negative messages to our children. These messages can lead kids to see themselves as bad, to grow less cooperative with us, and to become alienated from us and angry. The impact of chronic anger on our children sure is worth our attention in changing our patterns when under stress!
McKay and Fanning, in their 1996 research study, found that parents with low levels of anger tended to use more positive coping statements (in place of trigger thoughts). The seven coping thoughts that seemed most effective were as follows:
- It’s just a stage. Kids have to go through these stages
- This is natural for his/her age
- Don’t take it seriously/personally. Keep a sense of humour
- This is just natural (age-appropriate) impulsiveness
- He/She isn’t really trying to do this to me. It’s just how he/she is coping right now
- He/She can’t help (crying, being angry, interrupting, needing attention, etc.)
- Just get through it. You can cope. You don’t have to get angry
These are such fantastic coping statements and parents so often forget to use them. If you need assistance in remembering to use the positive coping statements, you could post them on your wall, or use the sticky dot technique! If these coping strategies don’t fit for your situation, spend some time creating your own. The more the coping statements are unique to your life, the more likely you are to remember to think them in the pace of trigger thoughts.
Most importantly, start becoming aware of how you feel anger in your body. Then, when you feel that sensation, check in with what is going on for you at that moment. What are you saying to yourself about the situation? Are you labeling your child in a detrimental way? Is that problem suddenly feeling magnified? Are you assuming some unruly motive to your child? If so, you are most likely using a triggering thought. Swap it out with a coping statement– and believe the coping statement.
Our children really aren’t out to get us! They are just navigating their way through some significant developmental milestones and often feeling helpless, powerless, frustrated, anger, etc. at the process!
McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (1996). When anger hurts your kids: A parent’s guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
This article was originally posted on January 24, 2011, to Happy Parents = Happy Kids (focusedonparenting.wordpress.com) by Susan Guttridge