I wrote not long ago about feeling ambivalent about having another child because I already feel so ill-equipped to deal with the one I have. It worked out well that around that time I had to write a piece on anger for the magazine I work on. I decided I would write my piece on toddler anger, and the feelings it inspired in me. This is my piece.
Anger. Every human has experienced it at some point or another. We probably all feel it at least once a day, sometimes many instances in just one afternoon. As a middle school teacher, I considered myself an expert in the field of anger. Each day, I’m exposed to student frustration, parental ire, and teacher exasperation. In the hormone-saturated halls of middle school, anger is a common occurrence. Then, my daughter became a toddler and I realized I didn’t know jack about anger. I was about to be schooled.
Anger is a base emotion. It’s impossible to avoid anger entirely; the only thing we can control is how we react to it. As adults, we’ve (hopefully) acquired a few tools to better handle our anger; when we get mad, we can usually control our feelings or at least express them in a socially acceptable way. Toddlers, unfortunately, have yet to acquire these tools. When a toddler gets angry, those around him are privy to this powerful emotion at its most extreme
Watching a toddler have a tantrum is like observing anger in its natural habitat. Toddler anger is raw, unbridled, visceral, severe and totally overwhelming. Toddler anger is a full body experience, for both child and parent: we hear the screams, we see the thrashing, we feel the hits, scratches and kicks, we taste the sweat and tears, and we smell the desperation. No one has endured a true outburst of anger until they’ve experienced a toddler in complete meltdown mode.
At the tender age of one and a half, my daughter is incredibly susceptible to outbursts of anger. Pretty much anything can trigger her rage. Daily necessities like diaper changes, donning a jacket (or socks, shoes, or any article of clothing, for that matter), even leaving all but one or two stuffed friends at home can provoke her fury. If she is faced with an actual affront—like say, a toy is taken away—the offending party is guaranteed a hurricane of rage will be unleashed, probably on them. Sometimes it feels like I’m living with an unstable element, a ticking time bomb poised to go off at anytime, without prior warning.
Most of the time I’m pretty calm in the face of my daughter’s outbursts. While it may be the minor leagues, eight years in a middle school classroom has taught me a thing or two about keeping my cool. I’m relatively good at approaching my daughter with slow movements and a gentle voice, even when she’s splayed on the dirty floor at Safeway. I’m also fairly adept at swooping in to prevent her flailing from causing herself—or others—harm; I’ve even managed to keep her head from crashing against the concrete on a few occasions.
Yes, most of the time, when faced with the unbridled rage of my offspring, I can use my adult tools to contain my own anger. There is only one situation when I feel it getting away from me, when I worry her rage will spur my own. That is when my daughter hits me. When my daughter purposefully slaps me across the face, I get really, really upset.
I’m not talking about the hitting, scratching and kicking that happen during a tantrum. I’m not referring to the uncontrollable movements of my daughter in her sub-human fits of rage. I’m talking about that moment when my little girl, calmly and coolly stares me straight in the face before slapping me with everything she’s got. That kind of deliberate violence against me is the one situation that triggers my own anger, and sometimes it’s intense.
I know that my daughter doesn’t understand what she’s doing; at least not in the way I understand it. I know she doesn’t grasp the severity of her actions. My rational brain is absolutely aware of that, but when my daughter hits me, it’s like my reaction-synapses detour my rational brain completely, bursting out of the anger-gate without looking back. I truly believe there is an evolutionarily remnant in all of us that reacts viscerally to deliberate violence against our person. Something inside of me screams, No! This must not be tolerated.
Of course, I’ve never acted on that anger. I’ve never met my daughter’s physical force with my own. But it has made me upset, incredibly so. And when I’m in a situation where I can’t just walk away from her, when I can’t create distance while keeping her safe, I feel at a genuine loss as to how to respond.
Maybe my reaction to my daughter’s deliberate hitting is understandable. Maybe all new mothers feel this during the initial assaults. Maybe this anger will dull over time, as my adult tools better perfect themselves to react accordingly. Or maybe it will always be this hard. Maybe when someone hits you, no matter whom they are, it will always trigger those base feelings of fight or flight. Whatever the case may be, I’m glad I’m getting these lessons now, because I’ve heard I don’t know anger from Adam until I’ve experienced the fury of a sixteen-year-old scorned.