Anger to the Nth Degree

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.

11 responses

  1. oh that’s got to be so hard. I’ve had many moments as a teacher where I’ve felt this loss of what to do. it just isn’t somewhere we can meet them, that anger. I can’t imagine directed at me from my own child. I believe you are doing the right thing by at least acknowledging it, and maybe with letting it out will come a greater sense of peace during those times when you have nowhere else to turn and have run out of ideas. sending deep breaths and counts to ten ❤ and lots of love and understanding.
    xoxoxo
    lis

  2. I wish I had some words of wisdom, but we are stuck in this phase too & it ain’t fun. Liam started hitting right around the time Jack was born & I was so hormonal I would cry every time he did it. Honestly, I still tear up sometimes– it doesn’t make me angry. It hurts me, breaks my heart. I know he’s expressing frustration and it’s totally normal at this age, but I take it really personally.

    We haven’t figured out what the right steps are to make it stop– We hold his hands and say “No, We don’t hit, That hurts Mommy, Be sweet & gentle” and that works for a while, but it still happens A LOT. (Like every other day?)

    Ugh. Guess we’re going to attempt to start time-out soon? He just seems so young…

  3. As you well know, I can very much relate to this. Like you, I don’t match her anger with my physical anger, but it’s downright next to impossible to not feel my blood boil when K is physically slapping me in my face. We do what Stef does with telling her “you don’t hit mommy/daddy – be gentle” but it’s hard to not have a more visceral reaction.

  4. This is such well-composed post, E. Meaning, the intensity of your experience totally comes through. To say this sucks is a ridiculously plain assessment. Perhaps I can say, This fucking sucks?

    I’ve had a few [relatively light] brushes with this myself this week, with an almost 15mo who has been some serious Exorcist shit on me. He has been so theatrical and dramatic, backbending off me with wild force when I hold him, but then screeching like a madman when I place him down. No amount of gentle or patient approach seems to have an impact, and it does make you feel helpless and powerless and inadequate. The hitting? I can’t even imagine. But I can relate to that synapse detour you describe–it thrusts you into a person you didn’t think you were, one I sometimes feel ashamed of, if I am being honest. It fucking sucks.

    Not minimizing, just normalizing here. We all feel these things. We understand. Isa is a brilliant kid, and you are a skillful, loving mother. You two will move through this and you will be okay. Hang in there, friend. X

  5. My son is a couple weeks younger than Isa and yep, the slapping across the face is a big problem that elicits a quick, firm, angry response. I tell my son “NO!” probably 75,000 times a day, sometimes with more energy, sometimes with less. But when he slaps me (or his daddy or the dog) in the face, or when he hits my glasses or when he touches the stove, those are the only times he freezes in his spot and looks surprised and a little frightened. Those are the only times he KNOWS that Mommy Is Serious. The rest of the nos are negotiations and lessons to get him to eventually understand what he really ought not be doing. But those three circumstances are unacceptable (and in the case of the stove, dangerous). When I yell at him for those things, my dad calls me “Sybil” because my entire demeanor changes so completely and immediately. But it’s necessary.

    Actually, with touching the stove, I ended up slapping his hand (hard enough to shock, not hard enough to actually hurt) everytime he touched it because it became a big problem fast and I was worried he’d turn on a burner when I wasn’t looking and we’d all die of carbon monoxide poisoning. It only took a couple hand slaps with serious nos before he stopped being overly attracted to the stove. Obviously not everyone would agree with that method, but for me, it was better to shock him with a hand slap and solve that problem for good and quick before he killed us all, especially since the stove and our kitchen is a big open place that can’t be blocked off.

    Got off track there. Anyway, my point is that yes, the visceral reaction to getting slapped in the face is real and I prefer to use my controlled but scary anger to teach him to stop before he does it to someone who may react with anger that is not so controlled.

  6. N. is going that way, too, I think. My son wasn’t like this at all, though … funny how two children can be so completely different. I love the fact that you take pictures of her when she’s angry, too, so that your memories of her childhood are balanced.

    At age one, I think the problem is communication … the physical is the only recourse you have when the words fail. They KNOW they should be able to communicate, but they CAN’T. Imagine trying to express frustration in a foreign country, somewhere you can’t even read … and try to get someone to understand you … well, you sort of lose it. That’s what I try to remember when I’m dealing with anger here.

  7. Great article! It really made me think how it would feel to be in their shoes- to have all this emotion but no language or experience to be able to express it appropriately yet. Must be tough

  8. My son is 9 months and is beginning to “exert independence” as the books call it. This means acting like every diaper change and clothing change is torture to escape from! (to put it lightly.) It is already getting to me. Can’t wait until he’s a full-blown toddler. I hope you figure out how to stop the hitting soon!

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