Taming Your Temper

Q: I’m a 42-year-old mother of 3 wonderful kids, ages 13, 9 and 5. My oldest daughter is bright and a competitive gymnast and my sons are active in boy scouts and soccer. My kids are generally good, but lately I find that I’m constantly yelling at them and losing control of my temper. I thought things would get easier as my children got older, but I feel like a slave to their busy lives. I feel guilty and resentful all at once. How did I get this way?

A: Much of what you describe has been echoed, to some extent, by nearly every mother I have talked to over the years. Most of us try to meet our children’s needs and manage our homes with smiles on our faces and an “endless” reserve of patience. And, most moms would agree that motherhood can be exhausting. As mothers, we quickly learn that our job is never-ending and requires many skills that are often learned along the way. Like it or not, the behavior and emotions we demonstrate as parents creates the background for our family’s mental wellbeing. With summer winding down and school on the horizon, I think the answer to your question can help anyone, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of feeling stressed out.

Slowing down
Often in medicine, physicians are asked to examine children for physical or emotional complaints. These may include stomachaches, nightmares and anxiety to name a few. Interestingly, although the child may be the identified patient, on closer examination, the issue often rests in a parent not feeling his or her best, and consequently influencing the family unit. The old saying that “the apple does not fall from the tree” certainly applies to the way our children adapt and face life’s challenges. If mom or dad is not managing life with some degree of resilience and happiness on a daily basis, chances are high that one or more of the children may be suffering, too. Treatments, in such cases, usually don’t involve medications, but some basic problem solving and soul searching.

Our society is plagued with numerous pressures. The environment screams “do more,” “do better” at every turn. Children are expected to be involved in multiple extracurricular activities, and many parents step up to make that happen. This lifestyle often leads to overscheduled days and lack of leisure time. The pressure you face to support your children’s active lifestyles, indeed, is very real. It is that very pressure that changes the trajectory of your mood while parenting your children on a daily basis.

I believe that your question underscores the importance of taking stock of our own “emotional thermometers.” That is, as parents, we really owe it to ourselves to become more conscious about our own mental health. This does not mean that one has to be on the brink of a depression or anxiety disorder. Rather, I’m speaking about basic feelings like contentment, satisfaction and happiness. Society puts a great deal of emphasis on physical health: there are efforts to watch our fat intake, exercise more and many of us undergo preventative measures to screen for illnesses. Similarly, we need to assume a more proactive role about our mental health. Perhaps, by doing so, our vulnerability to become overwhelmed will decrease.

Regaining perspective
The wonderful aspect about your situation is that you have acknowledged your feelings and wish to change them. While there are no simple answers, getting clear on what matters most to you may help you get started. Here are some steps to get your thoughts moving in the direction you are hoping for:
• Write down your basic values for yourself and your family. How often are those values challenged by the current life choices you are making?
• Examine your daily life in detail. How are you managing your time? What kinds of experiences are you engaging in?
• Do you take time to invest in your own personal desires, such as taking a walk or visiting with friends? If not, what is the reason for this?
• What kind of people are you surrounding yourself and family with? Do you find yourself living in competition with others or do you feel enjoyment by sharing experiences in these relationships?
• How is your relationship with your spouse? Do you feel that this relationship has been neglected or supported through the years?
• If you could change something about your life right now, what would it be?

Of course, these are just basic questions to get the ball rolling. But, these exercises force you to examine the pace, emotional tone and level of satisfaction you experience in the major areas of your life. When we become conscious of these qualities essential to healthy living, we begin to modify choices that may interfere with the joy and ability to parent effectively.

The fact that you mentioned that you are losing your temper daily and feeling guilty suggests that you have neglected your own emotional needs. Begin to make small changes by protecting time for yourself and adjusting your expectations. There are many excellent books on relaxation, meditation and visualization that may help you regain your perspective. Faith and prayer are powerful tools that are at our disposal to enlighten us more than we can ever imagine.

In the end, the lens that you use to live your life starts with your thoughts. Your thoughts must be cared for and protected by who and how you choose to live your life. Start to live more intentionally and you will see the mental health benefits manifest not only in your own life, but in your family’s as well.

a board-certified child psychiatrist adn mother of four in Charlotte