When You Lose It with Your Kids, the Problem Is Usually Boundaries, Not Anger

By Marilee Feldman, LCPC, CADC

In the world of perfection parenting that we’re immersed in, many moms are worried they don’t measure up, a major reason being that they lose their temper with their kids and feel guilty and ashamed afterward. While this happens to all of us, many moms are convinced they are somehow “worse” than other moms. And why wouldn’t they think that? Current mom culture tells us we should perfectly attend to all our children’s physical and emotional needs; hold down that job; convey to others that we are at ease and love every second of this; and look great doing it. We’re all wearing masks, and it’s hurting every one of us.

So in this environment, what could be worse than losing our temper? We conclude we are a terrible parent and if only we could get our anger management issues under control, we’d be fine. We look at the immediate events leading up to our outburst, conclude they weren’t so bad, and tell ourselves we’re the worst parent in the world and need to get a grip.

I find as a therapist, however, that the issue is usually not an anger management problem, but rather a boundaries problem, specifically the loose boundary of constantly prioritizing the needs of others over our own needs. My observation is that the more strikingly selfless moms are, the more stressed out and unhappy they are. And while I’m not condoning problematic or frequent outbursts at our kids or parenting that is so checked out that our children suffer, I do think we could all learn something from moms who understand the importance of getting their own needs met.

When we get angry, it’s usually because our needs are going unmet. The most common unmet needs of moms might be our needs for time and space; respect, understanding, and support; exercise; relaxation and enjoyment; connection with other adults; and a sense of autonomy and accomplishment.

I can hear you all laughing loudly right about now. It’s hard to remember that we actually have needs ourselves. But we do, and learning how to prioritize ourselves enough to get them met is the key to not only losing our temper less, but to a better life in general.

I always say that the moms who do best in their parenting are the ones who know how to be less selfless: those who hire babysitters so they can do other things, find ways to keep regular appointments for fun and self-care, go out alone with their partner regularly, and make separate time for work, creative endeavors, and relaxation.

Years ago a mom came to see me for help with her “anger management” issue, and it was interesting for her to learn that the problem was actually the poor boundary of excessive care taking of others and denying her own needs. She was fascinated to learn, for example, that when kids interrupt her work a thousand times in an hour, that’s it’s okay to not worry so much about their feelings and instead create a boundary by telling them that mom can’t be interrupted for the next hour.

Many of us can believe these ideas in theory but have a hard time carrying them out. Frequently we need a little time in counseling to figure out the reasons why it’s so difficult to have good boundaries that protect our own well-being. One thing that really helps is to learn that, if you can’t do this because you want to do it for yourself (most preferable), then do it because you surely want the caretaker of your children to be at her best, and oh…that happens to be you.

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