Parenting, Anxiety, & Rage
A week ago, I was part of an awesome series called Coffee & Chat, put on by Happimess in Squamish. I got to lead a discussion on how anxiety and anger can impact our parenting, inspired by an article Dalia and I read.
I was feeling nervous. I’ve done workshops on coping with anxiety, and I understand how anxiety can look like rage as a parent.
But, part of me felt like a fraud, because I have a 5 and a 2 year old, and I have totally lost my marbles at them in the past.
Okay, the recent past.
Okay, I’m going to get real here.
A couple years ago, when my second was about 6 months old, were coming home from a road trip. No matter how much we stopped, and no matter what we tried, she screamed and screamed at the top of her lungs.
I lost it. I was upset, then I was shaking mad, and by the time we got home, I was yelling at everyone.
I locked myself in the bathroom, and found myself on the floor, almost hyperventilating.
My brain started racing with thoughts: I was a horrible mother, I was not cut out for this, I couldn’t handle this.
I even believed briefly that my family might be better off if I just left, got a job somewhere, and sent money.
After that particular breakdown, I got help. And although I still “lose it” from time to time, it’s gotten much better.
But still. Even though I’m doing well now, I found myself wondering how I could go give advise to other parents?
But last Monday, there was a big turn out. And the parents were amazing.
Seeing how many of us anxiety had impacted was validating for me as a parent, and I hope it was for others too.
We all sat together and talked about how hard it can be, we talked about things that have helped, and things that didn’t.
Brave moms shared how medication helped, how meditation helped, how certain books helped, and how talking to other moms helps.
We lamented how many parenting programs don’t let you bring kids, or have long waitlists, meaning we don’t end up having the support we need.
While we talked, people got up and saw to their kids as needed. So many people made it work to be there; to learn, but also to support others.
We are all trying, so hard; because we love our kids.
I was very moved by everyones’ support of each other, and humbled to be leading the talk.
So, I tried to draw on both my experience and training, and offer up what I hoped might be helpful to know about parenting through anxiety:
Why anxiety & rage are so common in parenting
There are so many reasons! Here are a few:
– We’re naturally designed to take our babies cries very seriously, and to get stressed when our kids do. It’s kept our species going for thousands of years. And our brains do change when we become mothers; they get extra wired to react to our kids.
– Are brains are impacted by traumatic events like birth. Trauma is defined as experiencing the real or perceived danger of yourself or a loved one. When we experience something prolonged and painful like birth, can be traumatic even if danger isn’t involved. Beyond that, many of us have trauma in our past to begin with.
Symptoms of trauma relate to this next point…
– Our fight or flight response can become hyper sensitive (meaning our bodies are always on guard, and it doesn’t take much to trigger our anxiety or anger). This relates to so many problems.
Nerd talk: The fight or flight center of our brain (the amygdala) has nothing to do with logic (that’s way up in our pre-frontal cortex). So we can tell ourselves “the baby is fine” but our body doesn’t get that memo, and the physical reaction we have can feel like life or death.
– With all of this going on, we don’t usually get the time we need to process our thoughts or feelings which is also hard on our brains.
– And we all know that we’re impacted by the lack of sleep. Oh, the lack of sleep!
At the talk, I tried to explain how all of these things lead to having a smaller reserve of patience.
Making it hard to keep it together on a good day. Let alone when our kids aren’t listening, or when we can’t get our baby to stop crying.
The cycle of anxiety
With so many reasons WHY we’re stressed, I really wanted to also discuss the many different ways we can try to improve things. There are many parts of us involved with anxiety, which means many different things that can help.
My favourite way to explain the cycle of anxiety is to break down what’s happening (in the moment) into 5 parts:
– The situation
– Our thoughts
– Our bodies (or physical sensations)
– Our emotions
– Our behaviours
Below are some examples of how each of these parts can impact parenting, and some ideas for what we can try for each.
Try to recall a situation where you really lost it. Do you remember what was going on? Where you were, and what your child was doing (or not doing)?
Perhaps there’s a common situation, like having to get kids to listen. Or a common environment, like at the store.
If we can become aware of the situations we’re most stressed in, we can try to prepare ourselves, or problem solve for next time.
– Mindfulness can help us be more aware in the present moment, and increase reaction times, which can be so helpful. There are many mindfulness apps and youtube channels and podcasts to check out, if you feel drawn towards that.
– One Mom at the group shared that the book “Peaceful Parent: Happy Child” really taught her a lot about situations that were triggers for her, and why. I’ve also read it and learned a lot about myself as a parent.
Sometimes there’s too much going on to be aware of what we’re thinking, but often our thoughts in stressful moments are a big part of worsening the anxiety cycle.
We might be thinking, “Why don’t they listen?!” – Which implies that they don’t respect us. Being disrespected by someone who you do so much for is maddening!
Or perhaps we’re thinking “We’re going to be late, again!” Which can feel unacceptable, and like something we HAVE to get control over.
– CBT exercises! These can take some help to learn, but can be powerful tools. The idea is to take a look at what we’re saying to ourselves, see if it’s helpful, and if it’s no, try to re-work our thoughts so that they’re (still true) but more helpful.
– Mindfulness (again), because:
If we can learn to notice our thoughts, and it can be easier to observe them without being swept away with them.
– Quiet time, or time where you get to zone out and NOT plan, or think, or take care of others. Some of us have to schedule this. Perhaps a night out with friends, seeing a counsellor, or just go for a drive and listen to music.
– One of our parents suggested: meeting other moms somewhere the kids can run wild safely, while you get to have coffee and chat about whatever you want.
If you take a moment to check now, is your jaw tense? Could you relax your shoulders more?
Often we’re not aware of it, but our body can start acting like we’re getting ready to fight someone when we’re arguing with our kids.
We don’t WANT to be aggressive or panic, but our body is just doing its job to protect us when stressed.
Even before there is actual conflict, if we are in a situation we’re dreading, or even thinking about that dreaded situation, we might start to breath more shallow or tense up. This is our body’s way of prepping us for danger.
Being on guard so much is exhausting, and can cause things like headaches, which can ALSO make us more irritable. Our bodies are such an important part of what’s going on when we get angry.
With practice, we can learn to notice the tension, thank our body for trying to keep us safe, and then help it relax.
We can do things like body scan meditations, progressive muscle relaxation, and even massage or yoga. The idea is to let our bodies know we’re not in danger, by intentionally slowing down, and relaxing.
Trauma informed massage and yoga can be particularily powerful.
Not only can our body learn that it can relax, but it’s reminded that we’re safe, and we’re in control of what happens to us now.
After any physical trauma (like birth), this can be transformative.
And not being in fight or flight mode will help us keep an even head when parenting, too.
When we have newborns (unless something like Post Partum Depression is affecting us), we seem to have an abundance of patience for meeting our baby’s needs.
They depend on us for everything, do nothing for themselves, and yet we’re overrun with affection and a desire to meet their needs.
We’re in love.
At first, this type of attachment comes naturally, but over time it can get lost. We can become exhausted, emotionally depleted, and feeling used or unappreciated.
The less close we’re feeling to our kids, the harder it is to put up with them being so needy.
– Finding ways to feel the love again can be so helpful. Maybe it’s setting aside cuddle time, looking at baby pictures, or intentional rough housing time.
– One of the mother’s at our talk recommended a book called “the Art of Rough Housing.” She shared that learning how to use rough play made a huge difference for her as a parent, and for her kid, too.
– What’s good for our brains is good for our feelings too. Chatting with other parents who “get it”, seeing a therapist, or even providing support for someone else – having these connections can make us feel so much lighter, emotionally.
Out of all of the options, behaviour is regarded as the quickest way to effect change. Because choosing to behave differently, even though we might not feel up to it, impacts everything else.
– We might not feel like connecting with our kids when we’re mad at them, but cuddling them and looking at baby pictures together can shift our feelings.
– Same goes for things like meditating, especially when we feel like we’re way too busy. Just sitting with the awareness of how busy and rushed we’re feeling can be enough to remind us to relax a bit and slow down to be present, for ourselves and with our kids.
When trying to use new coping skills, it’s important to start small.
So small that it feels really doable. We all know it woul be helpful if we went to yoga every day, but that kind of thinking can be overwhelming for some of us. That adds to our anxiety instead of helping it.
Try to notice if you’re putting pressure on yourself.
Even deciding to slow down and respect that you’re feeling too overwhelmed to add ANY new tasks to your life, that can be important information to acknowledge.
When you’re able, just pick one little thing to try. Something you feel drawn to, or whatever is the easiest thing to start with.
As parents we have enough demands placed on us. While there are so many things that can help, please don’t feel like you have to learn about all the things, let alone do all the things.
You do enough already, and you are enough already <3