“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”—Dr. Bruce Banner
Remember the story of The Incredible Hulk? Scientist Bruce Banner accidentally exposes himself to lethal doses of gamma rays, and his DNA is restructured. Afterward, in times of anger or extreme stress, the otherwise mild-mannered doctor morphs into a raging green monster known as The Incredible Hulk.
Dr. Banner desperately tries to control his rage and prevent the transformations so he won’t harm others; unfortunately, he fails. In the 82 episodes of the original television series, Dr. Banner transforms into the Hulk in every single one.
As a parent, you may relate to the struggle of containing your anger—I know I have.
I’ve been a longtime advocate of conscious, mindful, connected, positive parenting. That’s why I never imagined in a million years I would feel the urge to yell at children—until I had my own.
I realized no matter how deep my beliefs ran or how powerful my love for my offspring, the messy reality of kids pushing boundaries, the exhaustion of working while parenting, the bewilderment of seemingly out-of-the-blue tantrums, the countless attempts to tame reckless behavior, the shock of a child yelling at you because you gave him a different colored plate to eat on than usual...well, it can lead to some Bruce-cum-Hulk moments including chronic yelling.
You may recognize that once the anger seeps in and the yell creeps up to your throat, it’s a battle to keep the scream from pouring out. And after you yell?
Of course, you feel awful, maybe even ashamed; you vow it will never happen again; however, somehow, much sooner than anticipated, your inner hulk rears its ugly head again.
I want you to know that if you yell at your kids, you’re not alone. In fact, research shows almost 100% of us have been there. If you want to stop yelling at your kids, it is possible. I’m both a reformed yeller and a researcher, and I want to share some tips to help you get started.
When you feel the urge to yell, begin by being mindful of what you think, feel, and do.
Angry self-talk often precedes a fit of hollers. In other words, when a situation triggers anger, thoughts usually race through our mind before we yell. I call these thoughts FAAT thoughts or First Automatic Angry Thoughts. The following are some sample FAAT thoughts:
- Low resilience: “You’re whining again? I can’t cope with this!”
- Shoulds: “How dare you throw your food! You should be behaving better than this!”
- Condemnation: “You’re not letting me sleep! You’re being so needy!”
- Situational assessment: “This is the absolute worst possible thing that could be happening! Why is this happening?”
- Feeling thoughts: “I feel so angry I could scream!”
- Pointing fingers: “It’s all your fault!”
- Power/Control: “I’m going to show you the consequences of this behavior! You have to listen and respond appropriately to me, I’m the parent here!”
It’s easy to recognize FAAT thoughts because when your nervous system is at peace (i.e., you’re calm) you would rarely think or say those thoughts out loud. If you do say or scream them out loud when you’re angry, you usually end up regretting them or telling the object of your anger that you didn’t mean what you said.
Try this: When you feel a yell creeping up in your throat, observe your FAAT thoughts. Pretend the thoughts are trains passing overhead. Allow them to pass without trying to change them. Feel free to point at and label them FAAT thoughts. Eventually, after a couple of minutes, the thoughts will pass and you will have the opportunity to transform them into more conscious thoughts.
Alternatively, you can write out your FAAT thoughts as you’re having them. If writing feels challenging, you can record the thoughts into your phone or recording device. Listening to your first automatic angry thoughts can be a great learning experience.
Many of us were not taught explicitly how to feel our feelings. Often with the best of intentions, we were taught to calm down, relax, or somehow distract ourselves when angry. These techniques can lead to quashing important feelings that need to be processed.
In lieu of numbing the anger, try to notice and name the sensory experience. Noticing and naming angry feelings while they are happening brings your language center in the prefrontal cortex online; this, in turn, tames your emotional brain and gives you a better chance at reining in the yell.
Researchers in Finland did an interesting study asking people to map out where they feel emotions in their body. As you can see in the following image, anger often rests in the upper body. Where does your anger show up?
Try this: When you feel yourself about to yell, notice and name where in your body you feel angry. The following are some examples of noticing and naming your feelings:
I feel angry in my chest right now.
I feel a lump in my throat.
I feel tightness in my stomach.
Remember, when Dr. Bruce Banner got angry, he felt powerless to turn into the Hulk, harming others with his rage. If you practice the first two steps above (in either order), you will come to the third: “Do” feeling more like you have a choice in how you react.
When you practice being mindful of your thoughts and feelings in the midst of anger, you are acknowledging and validating the inner Hulk...without acting or doing anything with the rage.
Try this: The next time you are triggered by your child, spouse, friend, circumstance, or something unbeknownst to you, observe your FAAT thoughts until they pass, notice and name where you feel your anger, and then do nothing. There is power in the choice not to react.
This article was originally published on PsychCentral.