Dealing With Impulsive Anger When Reacting To Children

By Samantha Vickery © 2013

What's your perspective?

Parenting is filled with moments of extreme happiness interspersed with moments of sheer frustration, and sometimes blinding anger. It is these moments of anger that parents can really struggle with in their quest to parent their children in a loving and respectful way.

I hear a lot of guilt coming from parents who tell me they 'couldn't help but shout,' 'got so angry they used time out,' 'felt a surge of vindictive spite' and 'wanted to use punishment in teaching their child a lesson.' So what sparked these feelings - these extreme and overwhelming reactions?

The majority of the time it is something very simple. A spilt drink, or perhaps a purposely poured one. A refusal to get dressed or go to bed. A meltdown at the end of bath time. A stand off over leaving the park.

In our calmest moments, when our angels are sleeping soundly and we are relaxing with a hot drink, we can look back at these moments and see them for what they really are. Nothing but minor hiccups in an otherwise smooth day, that had they been dealt with in a calm manner, would have likely fizzled out into nothing. Instead, these small incidents were turned into day-destroying catastrophes that made everyone miserable. But why is this so easy to see now, yet so hard to reason with in the heat of the moment?

Our reactions are programmed in to us from our own parents and the way we were treated as children. If our own parents were likely to fly off the handle at the smallest thing, it will take more than just deciding not to do the same things to avoid repeating the same cycles. It takes practice and mindfulness to overcome these patterns of behavior.

Anger is a valid emotion, and shoving it deep down, ignoring it, is not healthy for anyone. However, we should be wary of letting it rule us and control our behavior. Recognizing our anger triggers, and responsibly trying to avoid them, is a great first step. By pulling in support, eating regularly, keeping hydrated, resting whenever we can, and prioritizing our to do lists, we can take responsibility for keeping ourselves on an even keel.

But what if the trigger is external, like a whining child or an aggressive teenager? How can we keep calm when things happen that we have no control of?


Take a breath and wait. We do not need to rush into a reaction immediately. The situation has happened and there is no undoing it. Take another breath. Acknowledge your feelings – anger, frustration and tiredness. They are real and valid, but they do not need to control you. Breathe again.

Assess the situation

What has actually happened? On first glimpse you might see your child painting the wall, but take a moment. See the situation from an objective point of view. Is your child doing this to make you angry, or are they, in fact, simply exploring the resources at hand? You may see a poured glass of water over the rug, but wait - are they trying to antagonise you, or are they simply going through a phase of fascination when it comes to water? What's the damage? Can you fix it easily or is it going to be costly. Has anyone been hurt? Identify the facts before reacting, and try not to make it worse than it actually is. Often a damp cloth or a towel will be enough to undo the damage.

Identify the need 

Why has the situation occurred? Are they bored, curious, copying outside behaviour (often a reason in the case of hitting/biting). Are they overtired, hungry, feeling cooped up, overstimulated? Do they have an overwhelming need to explore and discover a particular resource? Have you made time for them today? Are you feeling connected? If not, consider why not and how you can remedy this.


The initial anger that you felt should have passed by now. It is that immediate and instinctual reaction that robs us of our control and leads to overreactions. By mindfully going through the process and putting the situation in to perspective, it is easier to react gently and reasonably, taking in to consideration the perspectives of the others involved. You can now come to a loving solution without feeling engulfed in anger, though you may still feel wronged in some way. Make the choice to take control of your emotions and the situation at hand, rather than letting the emotion control you.

Your instinctive reactions will evolve over time and with mindful practice. Sometimes we make mistakes and give in to the anger, loosing control and overreacting, but it is important that we are mindful and reflective of these occasions, taking the time to apologise for our mistakes, so that we can avoid repeating the same pattern the next time. When we are able to come at a situation calmly and rationally, we can see the answer to resolve it far more clearly. We can meet our needs and those of our children, and go on to enjoy the rest of our day.

Gentle and peaceful parenting is not about never making mistakes, nor is it about perfectionism. We are all learning and growing throughout our parenting journey, striving to do the best we can for our children. In being more present and mindful, we can truly begin to enjoy our children and reduce the stresses during our days with them. We can really begin to love parenting and all that it involves!

Related reading in the gentle discipline book collection.

Samantha Vickery is a mother and writer, who is passionate about natural and Continuum parenting. She believes in trusting children, which is the strong message behind her parenting guide, Trust Me, I'm A Toddler. She writes at Love Parenting where she hopes to help others to find more joy within their parenting journey, and create powerful connections with their children.


  1. Very helpful article! Parenting will always have its frustrations, no matter how "perfect" one's children behave. I remember being at the airport once, and there was a toddler banging on a vending machine. He kept pounding all the buttons, opening the flap, hitting the outside, and generally making a lot of noise in an already noisy place. At first it would have been easy to be angry and want to discipline him, but as I watched, I realized that he was just exploring the world around him. If I didn't already know what a vending machine did, I might have been doing exactly the same thing!

    This reminds me of a blog post my boss wrote once. He got so mad at one of his sons, he threw his root beer at him. Not the best way to handle his anger, but he learned some valuable insights from it afterwards: Family Anger Root Beer Story


  2. This is an article I really needed to read right now. I have a very active and curious 2.5-year-old daughter who is pushing her limits with me I know this is normal for her age, but it doesn't make it any easier. Reading through this made me realize I need to take more time in correcting her misbehavior gently and be more understanding at times.

  3. It came really handy. Right what I was needing today as my toddler drived me nuts. Her insistance for things, reapeting the same things a thousand times and the endless messes with liquids were making me go wild.
    I will just relax some more. I blame it also on my period tho. My period makes me be a mad angry gorilla and I jump at anything. Its so awful to be a girl sometimes lol.

  4. Growing up, I had abusive parents, and my husband's weren't too much better. When we got married, it was just common sense to us to raise our children in a loving, encouraging, positive way. Years later, we have a child and have been defying the odds, we're not our parents. We never read articles to decide how we want to raise our child or anything, but seeing that other people are doing this is encouraging. For the most part, we just figure things out for ourselves, but sometimes we get a great NEW idea of something to try, or even a reinforcement that what we're trying DOES work for people, that it IS possible.
    I hope these articles open up the minds of people, that they see that you don't have to resort to punishment, that children raised this way aren't "spoiled" or "out of control". (We constantly get remarks from people saying how well behaved our child is... you should see their faces when we say we have never said "no" to our 3 year old! She also doesn't know what the word "bad" means yet)
    Thank you for writing articles like this. They're a joy to read.

  5. yes, hormones apart, this IS a great article!
    How about guidelines for moms during their Period or PMS ? Let's face it, when your hormones are a mess, it takes more than just " breathing" to calm down. Especially if you have a challenging kid who constantly pushes your red buttons.

    1. Coming from a culture where there is no such thing as 'PMS' or 'menopause', comments like this are strange to me. I mean no disrespect whatsoever, but I think that maybe the way we grow up viewing women's normal cycles can have an influence on how we experience them. The brain is a powerful thing - controlling even our hormones. I've read some on this subject, but I would be interested to see further research done as well. I cringe to see a reiteration of the assumption that women are somehow 'irrational' when menstruating.

    2. My sister has pmdd and has had good results with vitex. I find that just acknowledging that I am hormonal reminds me to be aware of my behavior. I understand where lilla is coming from but hormonal imbalances are real and do affect how we react sometimes. I am much more loving and patient with my husband around ovulation. Why would the valid hormonal changes leading to menstruation not be treated as genuine and matter of fact. Not all women have the same experience. But this doesn't mean that pms is not real. I agree that our perceptions can change our reactions though.

    3. Have you heard of EFT or Emotional Freedom Technique? It's a natural way to work with our energy system on our emotions, even before the reactions happen. It can also decrease the hormonal symptoms - for example, I've had clients stop having hot flashes by using EFT on emotional issues from their past. There is some info about EFT on my website: I'm thinking about specializing in this parenting issue, because I have a 3 year old and he pushed so many of my buttons starting at his 2 year point, I know it's from how I was parented. Using EFT has given me more patience and less reactivity.

    4. Awareness, for me, is half the battle. When I wake up each morning, I try to take a moment to examine my feelings. Is this a day where I feel I could take on the world? Or is this a day where you better not cross me? When the first small annoyance of the day happens -- a spilled drink, a kid stepping on my toe -- do I laugh it off or make a grouchy comment? And then I try to have to the humility to plan for the me I have today, not the me I would like to be. PMS is not a time to reorganize the kitchen cabinets or get stuff done on the computer. I know that when I get really busy, the kids will interrupt for sure, and if I'm already feeling out of sorts, I'll blow up. Instead, PMS is a time to start the day slow, wear my coziest clothes, stay home if possible (because I am an introvert -- others might love a park day), plan something simple for dinner, read a lot of books to the kids, let them have a long bath while I soak my feet in the tub and read a good book ...... whatever relaxes me and gives me peace, plus whatever pro-actively gives the kids attention so they won't pick that day to pick on me. Often the kids seem bad on the very day I'm in a bad mood ... that is because they are picking up on my mood and feeling insecure, which makes them test the limits.

      On a physical level, the standard American diet doesn't help, and I have felt much better since cutting out additives and eating whole foods. I think in particular fat does help to balance hormones.

    5. I have used 5 Flower Essence and Bach's Rescue Remedy to help myself calm down when I think I might lose control. I've also given them to my children when they are getting out of control. Homeopathic remedies work also. Seek the advice of a Homeopathic doctor for the right remedy. I also find the more intense I feel, my children pick up on that and act out intensely. I use humor to calm everyone down. If my 2 year old is refusing to get dressed, I act say I'm gonna get you and I chase her around till I catch her. Laughing, she gets tickled and dressed. I also scream with her and hide my face till she stops and asks, 'you ok'? Then i grab her & love her up. Humor & play are a 2 year old's main ways to learn. Take advantage of them - you won't regret it.

  6. Any suggestions foe when the anger spikes in relation to almost 3 yo DS deliberately hurting 9mo DS? Love this article, good reminders but I see red when he does this and waiting doesn't seem prudent.

    1. It seems your older son is jealous of all the attention the baby gets. I would spend more time alone with him. reading to him, taking him to the park, etc. Maybe someone - Grandma, Aunt, partner could stay with baby for a couple of hours. Or when baby takes a nap, do something with the older one and when baby is awake. play with them both showing the older one how to be gentle and share with his brother.

  7. That picture looks like my YDD's room! I really like this article and have read it twice. Well worth re-reading to remind us.

  8. Great article. Anger doesn't solve any problem.. it only makes things worse. WE as parents should try keep our calm when dealing with kids.. But boy that sure can be very hard sometimes!

  9. This is PERFECTLY timed for me. I am just beginning my journey as a peaceful parent, after reading a very in-depth article at Parenting Freedom on spanking and the Bible.
    It's good to be reminded that a lot of parents deal with this - I am not some lone monster that has to battle feelings of anger. I am ok to take a little time out and breathe.
    Not kidding, I really needed to be reminded that we all need some grace, not JUST kids, but parents too!

  10. This is a great blog. Thank you for sharing with us. I use a few of these and have some other. Please check out my blog, The Day in the Life of Being a Mother.

  11. I think that having compassion, empathy and forgiveness foremost in our minds and hearts goes a long way toward peaceful parenting and relating to everyone... be it a boss, child or family member. I always got compliments in the grocery store when I acknowledged my toddler's feelings and set a boundary - "I realize you feel disappointed you can't have_____. I don't have the money right now to buy it". Acknowledging another's feelings helps them to feel heard and they can relax, knowing you have their feelings in your heart.



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