I’m not sure where I fall on the spectrum of short tempers, but like many mothers of small children, I get pushed to the edge a lot. And, depending on how much I’ve slept and my general stress level, I do not always react so well once I’m there. But I hate it when my anger takes over.
I used to get very, very down on myself whenever I lost my temper. I would recite an inner monologue along the lines of: “Look at you, Mother of the Year. Every time you get angry with your kids, you are destroying your relationship. Worse, you’re teaching them that this is how to respond to frustration! Don’t you know that you’re creating a cycle of bad behavior, and when they are adults they are going to react the same way to their kids! Control yourself already!”
It was a super helpful inner monologue, I know.
But over time, I’ve realized that as much as I truly hate losing my temper at my children, there is a silver lining. While I don’t aim to lose my temper, when it does happen, I am given the opportunity to show my kids that I’m human and I make mistakes. Through my reaction, I can teach them that it’s OK to mess up, as long as I acknowledge the lapse, apologize to the recipient of my frustration, and work toward fixing the behavior.
Basically, It’s an opportunity to teach them about the process of teshuvah, which is sometimes translated as “repentance,” but I prefer to translate it as “returning.” Doing teshuvah is returning to our original state, like a factory reset.
There are four steps to the process:
The first step is to realize the extent of the damage and feel regret. Check. I think I have this one down, maybe a little too much. I’m well aware that when I lose my temper with my children, I’m creating a barrier in our relationship, and I’m not modeling the behavior I want them to have.
The second step is to stop the behavior. Before I could even take this step, I had to do some serious introspection to assess why I was losing it as much as I was. It seems painfully obvious now, but I needed to learn how to be aware of my triggers, and to make sure that I was taking care of my physical needs, like sleeping and eating. I needed to learn how to remain present even when the baby wakes up three times in the night and the next morning I am unable to simply finish a cup of coffee because of all the hecticness.
As difficult as this step is, it’s motivating to remember that when I’m able to respond to stressful situations by staying present and resisting the urge to blow my stack, I am being the example I want to be.
Step three is confession, acknowledging the mistake and asking forgiveness. It is so humbling to sit on the couch with my child and admit how I messed up, to apologize and ask for forgiveness. But within the heartsickness of my regret, I feel good because I’m taking a step to repair the rift that was created through my anger. Plus there’s usually cuddling involved, which is the best.
The final step is making a firm commitment to not repeat the action in the future. I wish that I was in a place where I could promise to never lose my temper with my kids, but I am not there yet. What I can do is focus on my commitment to reducing the amount of times I get angry, and celebrate every time I succeed.
Even better, I share this success with my children. After a long day of 3-year-old meltdowns because, well, she’s 3, and my baby kvetching because he has a tooth coming in, and my bigger boys running around like crazy people, playing rough with each other in a way that I know will lead to hysterical crying, I can be a little close to the edge. If my oldest categorically refuses to get into pajamas, it could absolutely set me off. And when it doesn’t, when I’m able to stay present and see an overtired little boy, not a willfully defiant adversary, I tell him.
I say, “Look! You just refused to put on pajamas, and that makes me feel very frustrated, but I’m not getting angry! Hooray!” Then we have a little dance party and everyone gets hugs. And it feels amazing. And sometimes it even helps with the pajama situation.
My hope is that by showing my children that I am not afraid to acknowledge my flaws, to admit that I am a work in progress, they will internalize that it’s normal to make mistakes, and that they won’t feel a crushing sense of guilt for just being human.
I want them to know that we all have a unique package of traits, both good and challenging, that we need to work on over the course of our lives. I want them to know that it’s OK to mess up as long as one takes responsibility for her mistakes and tries to do better in the future. And I want them to know that we can forgive our loved ones for not being perfect, and accept them with their flaws, just as we hope they accept us.