Daddy Talk: Fits of Rage
A common concern of parents is what to do about their children’s uncontrollable tantrums. But recently I’ve found myself wondering what we should do about the uncontrollable outbursts of the parents themselves. To avoid offending any of the other parents I know, I’ll present some case studies from my own life.
Many of you may recall that bedtime around our house is particularly frustrating for me and my wife. During teeth-brushing time our boys are prone to distraction, and end up spending an hour playing and fighting instead of devoting two minutes to brushing their teeth. Several months back they started obsessing over a toilet plunger, using it as a hammer on the wall, an object for tug-of-war, and as a weapon to attack one another. Nearly every evening, I would end up confiscating this plunger. Aside from the obvious hygienic concerns, I could feel my blood pressure rising each time I heard the giggling and rubbery pounding of plunger on wood. Finally, one evening, I erupted. Taking swift action, I ripped the plunger from the spot where they had mounted it — adhered to the bathroom door, sticking straight out into the hallway — and marched it straight out the back door where I hurled it as far as I could into the darkness. As I slam med the back door shut behind me, I turned to see the boys staring incredulously and then retreating into the bathroom.
In another unhelpful rage incident, I recently walked into the living room to find my five-year-old swinging a stuffed snake around indiscriminately and in close proximity to several pieces of furniture. I asked him to stop swinging the snake, but he ignored me and then nearly knocked a lamp off the end table. Since he looked nervous, I didn’t say much. But I did confiscate the snake as punishment for disobedience. Less than two minutes later, I heard my wife getting frustrated with him because he seemed to be deliberately ignoring instruction. Infuriated that he was STILL not listening and compelled to support my wife, I again erupted. I entered the living room, raised my voice, demanding that he pay due attention to the authority figures who are speaking to him. And as I spoke, I suddenly became aware that I was whipping the previously confiscated snake on the coffee table that separated us. I can’t imagine that slinging the snake up and down was an effective method of intimidation, but the sight of me going crazy must have demanded some sort of response because my son did at least start paying attention to us.
After incidents like these I typically second-guess the actions I’ve taken. Guilt sets in. I wonder if I’ve done psychological harm. There’s some shame about what kind of dad I’m being. And I search for unknown answers to where those outbursts come from. But my wife and I have rallied around the idea that you can actually do more good in the “repair work” after blowing your top than you could have done if the incident never occurred. Usually, I end up revisiting my outbursts through conversation with my kids. I talk about how I felt when I “went crazy,” and I apologize for anything I’ve said that may have been hurtful or shaming. In every case the kids seem to understand. After all, they are aware of their own occasional outbursts. Seeing us work through our uncontrollable emotions may give them a clue on how to work through their own. Furthermore, it’s hard to avoid revisiting the embarrassing incident when there’s a toilet plunger lying for days in the middle of the backyard just begging the question.