Dos and don'ts of managing anger
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Looking for ways to control your anger? Here are some dos and don'ts for managing anger toward your child's other parent.
Take time to think about the problem and clarify your position. Before you speak up, ask yourself:
- What is it about the situation that makes me angry?
- What is the real issue here?
- Where do I stand? (What do I want to accomplish?)
- Who is responsible for what?
- What, specifically, do I want to change?
- What things will I do (and not do) in order to help bring about the change?
Speak up when an issue is important to you. You don’t have to personally address every injustice and irritation that comes along in your dealings with the other parent. But it is a mistake to stay silent if the cost is feeling bitter, resentful, or seriously unhappy. You devalue yourself when you don’t take a stand on issues that matter to you.
Speak in “I” language. Learn to use statements that start with "I" rather than "you" when discussing sensitive issues with the other parent. Start your sentences with “I think," "I feel," "I fear," or “I want," instead of with "you" statements that criticize, blame, or hold the other person responsible for your feelings or reactions. Watch out for disguised “you” statements, such as “I think you are controlling and self-centered.”
Learn to be assertive, not aggressive, when solving problems. An assertive person establishes a pattern of respect that encourages future dealings; an aggressive person establishes a pattern of fear that encourages avoidance of future dealings. Never get physical, restrain, or strike the other person.
Appreciate the fact that people are different. Recognize that there are as many ways of seeing the world as there are people in it. Different perspectives and ways of reacting do not necessarily mean that one person is “right” and the other “wrong.”
Recognize that every individual is responsible for his or her own behavior. For instance, if the other parent remarries, recognize that you and the other parent are still responsible for maintaining a healthy relationship with your children. It's unfair of you to be angry with the new spouse for “not letting” your former partner have the kind of relationship you want him or her to have with your children. In other words, the other parent’s new spouse is not responsible for the quality of the relationship you and the other parent have with your children.
Strike "while the iron is hot" or with your children present. In some cases, a good fight with the other parent can clear the air. But if you seek to change a fixed pattern, the worst time to speak up is when you are feeling angry or intense. If your temper starts rising in the middle of a conversation with the other parent, you can always say, "I need a little time to sort my thoughts out. Let’s set up another time to talk about it more." Asking to take a break is not the same as a cold withdrawal or emotional cutoff.
Use below-the-belt tactics. Unacceptable tactics include blaming, preaching, moralizing, ordering, warning, interrogating, ridiculing, labeling, or lecturing. Likewise, don't voice any interpretations, diagnoses, or analyses of the other person's actions. You should especially avoid belittling the other parent in front of your children.
Make vague requests. It's not helpful to say something like: “I want you to be more sensitive to the children.” Be specific about what you've observed and what you would like to change. For instance, you could say something like: “The other day when you said that Tommy should toughen up, it hurt his feelings. He’s been having a hard time lately with the divorce and he could really use your sensitivity and support right now.”
Expect the other parent, or anyone, to anticipate your needs or do things you have not expressed out loud. Even people you are close to, or have been close to (like the other parent), can’t read your mind.
Take part in intellectual arguments that go nowhere. Don’t spin your wheels trying to convince others of the "rightness" of your position. If the other parent, or anyone, is not hearing you, simply say, "It may sound crazy to you, but this is how I feel." Or "I understand that you disagree. We just see it differently."
Tell the other parent what she or he is thinking or feeling — or "should" think or feel. If the other parent (or anyone) reacts angrily to something you said or did, don’t criticize their feelings or tell them they have no right to be angry. Instead, say something like: "I understand that you’re angry, but I’ve thought it over and this is my decision." Remember that just because someone gets angry with you does not mean your position is wrong or unwise.
Speak through your children. For instance, if you are angry with the other parent's behavior, don’t say to your child, "Tell your mother that I’m angry that she didn’t attend your school play." State your concerns directly to the other parent.
Expect change to come about through angry confrontations. Change occurs slowly in relationships, including your relationship with the other parent. You may have to practice defusing your anger in conversations many times before you see an improvement in your relationship.
Get discouraged if you fail to put theory into practice immediately. You may not always succeed in your attempts to control your anger when communicating with the other parent. For example, the conversation may start calmly, but spiral out of control midway through when you lose your temper. Getting derailed is part of the process, so be patient with yourself. You will have many opportunities to get back on track and try again.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.) Controlling anger before it controls you.
Shrand, J., & Devine, L. (2013). Outsmarting anger: 7 strategies for defusing our most dangerous emotion. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint
Reviewed in 2012