Humming, I prepared to make a pitcher of orange juice. As I picked up the open can of mix, my two-and-a-half-year-old son, Anthony, jumped onto a stepstool to watch and knocked my arm, splattering orange-juice concentrate everywhere.
"You stupid little fool!" I shouted right in his face. "Can't you do anything without making a mess? All you ever do is make more work for me to do!" Anthony covered his face and broke into tears. I was unrelenting. "You drive me crazy! Get out of this kitchen and don't come back until I tell you to!"
As soon as I heard him sobbing in his bedroom, my tantrum subsided. Filled with remorse, I walked slowly to Anthony's room and sat down on the edge of his tiny bed. He knew why I came to him; we'd been through this cycle of anger so many times, it was routine. Anthony crawled into my lap, touched my face, and whispered, "I f'give you, Momma."
As I looked into Anthony's sweet face, I knew exactly what he felt. As a child I'd been on the receiving end of my mother's violent outbursts. No matter how careful or "perfect" I was, she'd become furious with me and call me names, often shoving and hitting me, too. Early in my life, I'd concluded something had to be wrong with me. It wrenched my heart to think I was putting my child through the same pain and that he could grow up to continue this cycle of anger.
I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had no idea how to change. I was like a bomb on the verge of exploding. My son was afraid of me; my relationship with my husband, Steven, was, at best, strained. Raised in a gentle, loving family, Steven couldn't understand my volatile temper. He was pulling away from me, and I lived in fear he'd take my son and leave me if I didn't gain some self-control.
I cried out to God over and over to help me. Yet I overlooked the fact I couldn't ask God to change me, then sit back and wait for him to zap me into "Mother of the Year." I needed the help of a trusted friend who could hold me accountable and the expertise of a Christian counselor who could assist me in changing my lifestyle, my parenting style and, thus, my relationship with my child.
As I continued reaching out to God, he showed me the seriousness of my sin. After confessing it, I began devouring the Scriptures. I clung to God's promise in Philippians 1:6 that he always works to perfect us. God's unconditional, gracious love held me up and moved me forward.
I frequently prayed through Psalm 139:23-24, asking God to show me any "offensive way" in my life. I clung to the promise in Psalm 46:1 that God is ever-present in trouble. I claimed the promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13 that no temptation is too big for me to be victorious over. I saturated my mind with God's Word. As I read and prayed, God showed me things about myself that needed to change. And he led me to new solutions and steps to take with my child. Here are five suggestions to make your struggles with anger less difficult.
1. Be accountable to someone you trust.
Although I lived in fear someone would discover my horrible temper, I knew I needed help. My mother-in-law turned out to be my greatest ally, walking with me through tough times, praying for me, baby-sitting when I absolutely couldn't give one more ounce of myself. When I failed, she was a comforter as well as an exhorter. I could trust her completely.
Ask God to give you someone with whom you can open up. Be completely honest and ask that person to keep you in check. Pray and seek solutions together.
My problems were so overwhelming, I felt paralyzed by them. So I sought the help of a professional Christian counselor. I found a compassionate, well-trained family therapist who understood my situation. He didn't "fix" me, but guided me to solutions and held me accountable.
When is your anger big enough to require counseling? If it constantly disrupts family relationships or continually causes you or your child distress, get professional help. Even one visit can give you fresh perspective and renewed motivation to keep working on your weaknesses.
Some struggling parents find community programs such as one-on-one mentoring, parenting classes, and support groups helpful. In all of these you'll meet and be helped by other parents who've struggled in raising their children. In larger cities, churches often offer the same resources for hurting parents.
2. Evaluate your parenting goals.
What are you trying to accomplish as a parent? If you have no goals, your haphazard approach will leave you frustrated and open to bursts of anger.
As I looked at my goals, I realized most of them were desires. For instance, I wanted Anthony to sit quietly in the doctor's office as we awaited our turn. This was dependent on his actions, not mine, so I couldn't make it happen. Every time we went to the doctor I was angered over what I perceived as my failure to make him act the way I wanted him to.
A more viable goal was to help my son behave appropriately in the doctor's office and mete out rewards and consequences based on his choices. After rethinking this goal, our visits to the pediatrician became more pleasant. I talked to Anthony about yelling, running, and climbing in such places, brought things for him to do instead, and even played with him rather than read a magazine.
Your goals should be down-to-earth, biblical, and, if you're married, in line with your husband's goals. For a couple years, my goals and Steven's clashed constantly, adding to my anxiety and, of course, to my anger and tendency to take it out on Anthony. Learning to work with my husband was imperative!
3. Evaluate your expectations of your child.
At the doctor's office, I'd expected my toddler to sit and wait indefinitely. Not possible! We also learned much too late that Anthony was physically affected by the medication we gave him for his asthma three times a day for several years. My "wild child" literally couldn't control his body; he was pumped full of a substance much like adrenaline!
I learned to tell the difference between childishness, which all kids experience, and defiance or disobedience. Every little one spills a drink now and then. But knocking a drink to the floor deliberately is another matter. I now ask myself questions: Did my son honestly forget to take out the trash, or did he ignore me? I listen to him and observe his body language while I discuss it calmly.
Many of my expectations for Anthony were self-centered. I didn't want to be inconvenienced or to give up too much "me" time. Above all, I wanted to be sure he made me look competent. But my child isn't just along for the ride; he's an individual with specific tastes, abilities, preferences, and pet peeves. Although I'm in authority over him, living together as a family should include mutual respect and a little give-and-take. So I came up with a few creative solutions to recurring behavior problems that made life more fun for Anthony while helping me accomplish necessary goals.
For the first six months after he turned three, Anthony had a terrible time staying in bed after we'd put him down for the night. No matter what we did, he'd find an excuse to get up and come out to the den. We finally put a decorated shoebox on a shelf over his bed and told him that whenever he stayed in bed the first time we tucked him in, the "Treasure Box" would hold a surprise for him in the morning. It worked. As he got used to staying in bed, we were able to phase out the rewards.
4. Evaluate your expectations of you.
The greatest cause of my temper tantrums was an overloaded circuit. I attended weekly Bible studies and volunteered for service projects in the community and at church. I often substituted in the church nursery and sometimes taught Sunday school. Combined with trying to keep a spotless home and fulfilling monthly writing assignments, I was running from dawn until late evening every day. When Anthony became a hindrance to my daily accomplishments, I ran right over him or blew up at him when he interrupted me.
I had to learn to slow down, look carefully at each commitment and opportunity, and ask, Am I called to do this in this season of my life? Often the answer was no.
Many of us who struggle with anger are hard-driven personalities who take on too much and attempt perfection in every arena. As I focused more time on my relationship with Anthony, I became more willing to accept simpler evening meals. A little dust on the baseboards didn't seem so threatening anymore. Steven opened my eyes one day when he said, "Honey, I'd rather come home to a relaxed wife and a messy house than a spotless home and a raving maniac!"
5. Raise your level of resistance.
Every parenting guide I looked at said, "Take care of yourself! No one can handle stress if she isn't up to par healthwise."
I habitually stayed up well past midnight just to soak in the quiet when everyone else was asleep. The next day I couldn't cope with an active little boy and my list of "must-dos."
It's trite, but true: Eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep increase a woman's ability to handle daily stress. For me, regularly scheduled time alone also served as a release valve. Not all of us crave the same amount of time for ourselves. But ignoring or sacrificing this personal need will leave you frazzled. The women's ministry at my church formed a baby-sitting co-op that enabled mothers of young children to swap free childcare. I joined and used my allotted time only for myself! Later on, when I had two, three, and then four children, I put the kids in a weekly Mother's Day Out program and recharged one day a week.
Anthony is 11 now. The other day after school I asked him to take care of his chores quickly before doing anything else. He sort of growled and slammed his bedroom door, mumbling. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I marched toward his room, ready to tear down the door and give him a lecture about pulling his weight.
A still, small voice stopped me, reminding me that Anthony had been at a desk for seven hours and needed to unwind. I stopped in my tracks, prayed a quick "Show me how to deal with this!" and knocked on the door.
The door opened and Anthony immediately apologized for his disrespectful behavior. "Can we talk for a minute?" he asked. He told me about an embarrassing mishap he'd had at school. I sympathized with him and asked if I could help somehow.
He suddenly reached over and squeezed my arm. "I'm sure glad we're friends, Mom," he said. "It makes all this other junk easier."
Now that was worth taming my temper!
Kathryn Bishop is a pseudonym for a writer living in Texas.
When You've Blown It
- Admit it. If you've shouted something mean or hit your child out of anger, don't make excuses. Admit you're wrong.
- Pray. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
- Ask forgiveness. Go to your child, say you're sorry, and ask his forgiveness. Ask him to pray for you. Tell him you're trying to get your anger under control. Reaffirm your love for him.
- Forgive yourself and move on. If you hold onto your failures, you'll make yourself miserable and more apt to explode again. Instead, cling to Lamentations 3:23, which tells us God's mercies are new every morning.
- Commit to change. Get professional help from a compassionate Christian counselor who's an expert in this area. And find someone elsea trusted friend or prayer partnerto hold you accountable for your behavior.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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