Hey, Daddy, look at me!” said my then-5-year-old daughter, Josephine, while perched in her grocery cart seat.
Desperately trying to get home on a weeknight, I rushed with her through the aisles at Whole Foods like I was on a game show. After 30 seconds of ignoring her attention-seeking pleas, I finally looked up and discovered that my chubby-cheeked shopping partner had pulled a plastic produce bag over her head. I paused, dumbfounded. How did she get that? Oh yeah. I gave it to her to play with. She smiled proudly at me through the clear wrapping, like the world’s happiest hostage.
“Oh my God!” I screamed, yanking at the bag. How long had she been like that? And how many people had seen me studying the heirloom tomatoes, oblivious? After confirming that she wasn’t about to lose consciousness, I ripped into her.
“What the hell were you thinking?” I yelled. “You could have died. Don’t ever do that again! Do you understand? Well, do you?”
Her eyes started to well up. Crap. I switched gears so fast it gave me whiplash.
“It’s OK, honey,” I said. “You’re OK.” But the damage was done. She started bawling. Sure, I wanted her to understand her stunt was dangerous. But that didn’t mean I had to go full Alec Baldwin on her. My heart raced and my arms went numb—familiar feelings that have always accompanied angry outbursts directed at my kids.
How could I have yelled at Josephine like that? And how had I never taught her that pulling a bag over her head was perhaps not the wisest move? I wheeled us to the gelato counter, and everything was right again with the world. At least temporarily.
I wish I wasn’t a yeller. But when the stresses of modern life converge with two little ladies who, when not being charming and adorable, can be ungrateful, spiteful, lazy, manipulative, and just plain annoying, I go from Bruce Banner to the Incredible Hulk. I always thought yelling was just part of being a parent. That it showed my kids I “meant business.” But according to most psychologists, screaming at children causes them to tune out or become desensitized, which makes them even less likely to behave. That explains it.
Josephine is 9 now. Her little sister, Gemma, is 5. And over the past few months, I’ve lost my shit more than ever. Is it the increasing stress of my work? The constant negotiations around bedtime? The disasters they create throughout our house? (Who knew glitter could clog a sink.) I decided it’s time for professional help.
Some Googling points me to Bernard Golden, a local psychologist and anger management expert whose latest book is titled Overcoming Destructive Anger. Golden, a trim, easygoing guy in his 70s, developed his skills as a teacher in the Bronx in the 1970s. “When I yelled at the kids, it didn’t work,” he tells me as we talk in his Gold Coast office. “I realized if I lowered my voice and spoke slowly, all the kids would sit up in their chairs. Emotions are contagious.”
Anger, he says, is usually a reaction to a perceived threat: “It doesn’t have to be physical. It could be a threat to your resources: your finances, your energy, your time. Or a threat to your ego.”
I quickly identify that the threat I perceive is the loss of my time. Recently, for example, the girls demolished the basement and ignored my request to pick up the slew of Barbie dolls, candy wrappers, and half-finished art projects. The longer I have to badger them in situations like that, the less time I have to get my own work done. OK, so I know more about why I’m pissed off, but I’m not sure how that helps me avoid an aneurysm the next time I step on a Lego.
Golden says that anger is usually a reaction to other negative emotions you are experiencing at that moment. He hands me a Feelings List—which sounds a little too Mr. Rogers for my tastes—and asks me to pick out the words that describe my emotions when the kids ignore me. “Disappointment,” for sure. “Irritation” is another good one.
I start seeing words that make me a little uncomfortable. “Helpless.” “Powerless.” Finally: “Inadequate.” When the girls don’t listen, I feel like I’m failing as a parent.
“Anger is typically driven by unrealistic expectations,” Golden tells me. “Let’s look at it statistically. How often would you say your children actually listen?”
“About half the time,” I say.
“OK, you have a 50-50 possibility,” he says, with a smile. “The challenge is, the emotional side of your mind expects that number to be 100 percent.”
Damn, he’s got a point. I expect my kids to behave all the time. So whenever I walk in the door, I’m setting myself up to fail.
The key to keeping my emotions in check, says Golden, is training my body to relax when I get physical cues (like a racing heart) that anger is taking over. He performs a quick guided meditation. Within a few minutes, I’m so relaxed I nearly fall asleep.
Golden also preaches the importance of knowing when to give yourself a goddamn break—in other words, recognize that kids do the darnedest things.
“The key is to respond, not react,” he explains. That’s easy for him to say. Has he seen my kids’ bathroom?
For the next few weeks, I test-drive Golden’s advice. When Josephine and Gemma bitch about brushing their teeth, I pause, take some breaths, and lower my voice. I tell them it makes me feel sad when they don’t listen. Most times, this gets their attention; other times, they don’t seem to care. But I’ll take what I can get.
Then, I’ll be damned, it starts working. One Sunday, I politely ask Josephine to clear the wreckage from the previous night’s sleepover. She’s sleep-deprived and coming down from multiple sugar rushes. I fully expect a huffy response combined with her signature eye roll. She says she’s too tired, but when I press, she marches downstairs and does a semiadequate job.
At bedtime, I thank her for taking care of the mess. Then I ask her what she thinks when I yell.
“I think you’re mean,” she says. “It makes me want to ignore you. To be honest, I really don’t even know what you are saying most times.”
“So why do you do things that make me angry?”
She doesn’t answer immediately. But as I leave the room, she calls out, “Kids will be kids.”
Smart girl. She must have really awesome parents.