My kids are screaming bloody murder in the backseat of my car. I tried to avoid it, just like I always do. I packed snacks so they could scarf them down right at school pick-up. I made space for Special Time with my youngest daughter earlier in the day. I got a good night’s rest last night. But, still, the moment we pulled onto the freeway and started heading home, both my girls launched into a heated argument.
“That’s my pen!” the little one screamed at her big sister. “Give it back this instant.”
My big girl snapped back. “You are such a baby. Mom, tell her she’s a baby and she should shut her baby face.”
I can feel my chest tightening, my throat constricting just a little as my own emotions start to build. Who are these little hellions and what have they done with my children?
“Honey, please speak politely to your sister. We don’t use mean words like that in our family.”
My corrections go nowhere. They reach a fever pitch in five seconds flat. Arms hit, legs kick. Someone starts crying.
“Hey, the two of you need to separate right now before we all get into an accident!”
I’m still careening down the highway, trying to focus on the cars in front of me as they battle to the death behind me. If I had time to even glance at myself in the mirror, I’m sure I would see my face flushed, the little wisps of hair at my forehead starting to bead with perspiration. Frustration is an understatement. No, the feeling I’m trying my best to suppress is white hot rage.
Mom rage is real, and it’s explainable. When our kids don’t behave perfectly (or at all in the case of my experience that horrible day), when we’re over-stressed by our schedules or under-supported by our partners, when we’re trying to juggle too many roles and responsibilities, or even when we’re just over-touched by everybody—all of that doing and trying and being can lead to an inner pressure or exasperation that releases in a fiery fury. Biological basics can also lower our threshold for grown-up meltdowns. How many times have you gotten waaaay too emotional over a very small transgression, only to realize the last time you ate was five hours ago, or to remember you were up late consoling your toddler through a night terror again.
Embarrassment and fear also play a role. When my children physically assault each other in my vehicle, some little part of me is scared they will do the same thing to someone who’s not a sibling one day. I worry, even though blatant lack of disrespect isn’t their usual M.O., that they won’t listen to me in other dangerous situations. I think about the other drivers around us—complete strangers who I’ll never see again, by the way—and what they’ll think of us when I finally bring my vehicle safely to a stop and address head-on the wrestling match threatens to ensue.
But explainable is not enough. If understanding the rage monster is half the battle, the other half is knowing how to tame it. Here’s what I tell the moms I work with.
Prevent, Prevent, Prevent
Attend to the basics: sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Decide you’re worth five minutes a day to rest, re-group, and relax with your favorite song, some deep breathing, or a good laugh. Even better, commit to creating a self-care routine throughout the week. One hour three days a week doing anything that brings you joy and has nothing to do with performance (completing an item on your checklist, finishing a task, or working toward an accolade from someone else) gives you space to reconnect to yourself and to de-stress. My favorite self-care activity? Blasting a good hip hop jam while I walk around the neighborhood or hop onto my exercise bike. Yours maybe a coffee date with a friend, or a good book.
Narrate Your Internal and External Drama
Mindful self-compassion is one of the most powerful tools moms can use to understand their rage in the moment and to change their response to it. Here are the basics. 1. Name the emotion you’re feeling (i.e. I am angry). 2. Validate it (i.e. It makes sense that I’m angry because my two kids are behaving poorly and I am physically unable to control them or change their behavior right now.). 3. Common Humanity (i.e. I bet I could fill a coliseum full of moms who would feel the exact same way right now if this was happening to them and I bet I could fill that coliseum with moms who have had this happen to them). 4. Responsive Action (i.e. What can I control? What can I do? I can pull the car over and help my children), and 5. Responsive Planning and Curiosity (i.e. Is there anything we could do next time to prevent this? Is there anything else I could have done once this started? Did something happen earlier between my kids I wasn’t aware of?). Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes it’s no. More importantly, instead of feeding the rage monster and fueling my inner critic, I burned them out by pausing, attuning, getting curious, and being kind to myself and my kids. For more on mindful self-compassion, check out Kristen Neff and Chris Germer’s work on the subject.
Take an Intentional Break
Sometimes, when our children (or anyone else for that matter), incites rage in us, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to take physical space. I couldn’t as I sat trapped in the car because a. I needed to find a safe place to pull over first and b. I had to manually separate my kids from each other for the fighting to stop. Threats and yelling would have only escalated their fury—and mine. In fact, I initially did yell, “Stop right now!” which only made them raise their volume further as they tried to one up each other with, “Mom make her stop” and “It’s her fault!” One thing I could do was take a verbal break. It went like this. “Girls, I am getting very angry inside my body. I asked you to stop. I don’t want to do or say anything to hurt you so I am going to be quiet until I can get to a place on the road where I can help you.” They kept yapping at me and at each other but I stayed silent. Whether you create a boundary in your physical environment or as you verbally interact, taking space calmly models what we want our kids to do when they have big emotions and helps us calm down while honoring the struggle we’re having ourselves.
We will always have moments of mom rage—or at least I know I will for the foreseeable future—because we’re human and our kids are humans, too. The trick is to keep the rage monster at bay more often by taking care of ourselves consistently, and by calling on strategies in potentially rageful moments like mindful self-compassion, narration, and intentional breaks—tools that make the monster less likely to cause harm or leave us with regret, and a lot less scary.