I have little kids, four and two. And here’s something that’s been driving me nuts lately: My kids don’t listen to me. Well, to be fair, a lot of the time they do listen. “It’s time for lunch,”…”all done watching videos,”…”eat your spaghetti,” and they do it. But there are also plenty of times when they don’t. When that happens—when I tell them to do something and they flat-out just don’t do it—that flips a switch inside me that really gets me going. It feels like the temperature in my head goes up to 130°. This part of me wants so badly to yell, to assert my authority, to just have control.
But there’s another part of me that really doesn’t like yelling, a part of me that clamps down, tightens me up, and says in my head, “keep it together…don’t do anything rash.” And so these two parts of me end up in this stalemate. I sometimes just freeze up and find it hard to say anything. It feels like shit. Eventually, one of us gives in. Either I give up and eat the spaghetti myself, or they relent and gobble it up because, “Oh yeah, spaghetti is my favorite!”
But the fact still remains that there are those moments when parenting triggers me in a way that makes me feel like I’m losing control of myself. Some anger makes sense when they don’t listen to me, but many moments, it feels like these parts of me take over, and I can’t make them go away. It feels in that moment like I’m no longer my Self. And I know that no matter how hard I try to be a good parent, whatever I do is not going to be my best.
No matter what age your kids are, I’m guessing there are things they do that trigger you. There are times when anger or anxiety or sadness or something takes over and you don’t feel like yourself anymore. This is normal—it happens to everyone. And it’s one of the most important things to pay attention to as a parent.
It is very helpful for me to think of my anger as coming from a part of me, instead of just thinking, “I get angry about this.” Because I’ve come to realize that when my angry part takes over, I really am not myself anymore, but, in a way, I have become this angry part of me. This framework comes from a therapy style I use that believes all of us, at our core, have the ability to be compassionate, curious, empathic, creative, all the best traits of parenting, but that we often have parts of us that get in the way. This core we call the Self.
So when my son refuses to clean up his toys and get ready for bed, my Self wants to go to him and say in a soft voice, “You seem upset about this. What is it about having to be done that makes you upset?” and my Self wants to empathize with him and to remember what it was like when I was little and had to stop playing at bedtime.
But the part of me that gets angry, and then the other part that tries to shut the anger down, when they take over, my Self is not available to me. And it becomes very hard to have empathy and compassion for my little boy who just feels sad.
I’ve been working with parents for years now, parents with kids of all ages. One of the most common questions I get is, “What am I supposed to do?” I’ve learned to help parents see that this isn’t always the right question, that sometimes when your kid keeps doing something that makes you angry or afraid, what you need to ask instead is “Am I my Self in this moment?” And if not, can you notice what part or parts of you are taking over? Because, often, just noticing a part can help it relax and can help give you more access to your Self. And in those tough parenting moments, your Self knows what to do.