Mental Health: Mom Rage Is Real And It’s More Common Than You Think
There’s a simmering anger festering inside a growing number of us and sometimes we just can’t keep it in. Here’s why the term “mom rage” is becoming mainstream, what’s causing it and what we can do about it…
Put your hand up if you sometimes rage at your kids. Yell, stamp your feet, threaten harsh consequences, slam doors, scream for an extended period without feeling like you’re able to stop, grab an arm a bit too firmly…
No one? OK, I’ll go first. I once got stopped by the cops for yelling at my daughter. I was at the park with my then one-year-old twins and my extremely feisty three-year-old, and I lost it when my big girl ignored my eighth request to get off the slide and come home. The cops happened to be walking by and came to interrogate me. It was terrifying and I was shaking like a leaf by the end of it. The shame lasted weeks and I couldn’t go back to that park for months.
I honestly don’t believe I did anything that millions of parents don’t do every day. I didn’t swear at her or hit her – I just yelled. But that was enough for the police to come and check on her wellbeing and for me to seriously question my parenting. Sure, I was exhausted and stretched thin from parenting three kids under three on no sleep, but the COPS? Sheesh.
Mom rage is real
It wasn’t until I recently stumbled upon a courageous and raw first-person account of mom rage on The New York Times that I realized just how prevalent it is. I hate hearing that other moms experience the same Molotov cocktail of emotions that lead to a “mom rage” episode, but it also makes me feel better to know I’m not alone.
One explanation I found fascinating is that “rage builds on rage”. University of Alabama psychologist Dolf Zillmann found that repeated annoyances or provocations can slowly build up our anger until we explode in a fit of rage over something seemingly minor. That explains why we can be patient with a tantruming toddler all day only to lose our minds when they spill their cup of milk at dinner.
While my angry episodes have dramatically diminished in frequency since I started getting more sleep and my kids have become more independent, they still happen sometimes and I’m not proud of them. I do not hit my kids, but I know deep down that my words can be just as hurtful as a smack.
Why rage is bad for us and our kids
The last thing I want to do is shame my fellow overwhelmed moms (or myself), but I think it’s important to face some facts, so let’s do it quickly like a band-aid.
When we feel intense anger, our adrenal glands flood our bodies with stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Our “fight or flight” response is triggered and we experience a range of physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and faster breathing.
Over time, stress hormones associated with anger can lead to health problems including insomnia, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that our rage affects our kids too. Studies have shown that parental verbal aggression (which can range from yelling to humiliation) can alter children’s brain structure and increase their risk of mood and anxiety disorders.
Teenagers who are subjected to harsh verbal discipline are also more likely to have conduct problems and depressive symptoms. Interestingly, parental warmth doesn’t reduce the negative effects of yelling.
Bottom line: rage isn’t good for anyone.
The pandemic has exacerbated mom rage
Sadly, the daily pressures brought on by COVID-19 have only aggravated the problem. A survey of 562 parents conducted by the University of Michigan last year found that they yelled or screamed at their children more often (up 19 percent) since the beginning of the pandemic.
While 61 percent of parents surveyed had shouted, yelled or screamed at their children at least once in the previous two weeks, 20 percent had spanked or slapped their child in that same timeframe.
“I wasn’t a shouter before lockdown, but when I started juggling working from home and homeschooling my two boys, I became shouty overnight,” says Aleese. “I don’t want to make it into a sob story because I’m not the only one who’s going through this, but the stress and pressures of this pandemic have really affected my parenting and my marriage. I yell all the time now and I hate myself for it.”
According to Australian parenting expert and father of six Dr. Justin Coulson, anger is a secondary emotion that’s always caused by another underlying emotion. Anger can mask fear, sadness, vulnerability, grief, loneliness or feelings of inadequacy.
If you add the extra pressures caused by the pandemic – including social isolation, lack of support, financial strain, the stress of juggling work and family demands 24/7, and lack of time for self-care – it’s easy to see why moms are raging.
And it’s not just moms. “I’ve finally admitted that I need an outlet for my pent-up anger,” says father of three David. “I just feel so much pressure on my shoulders all the time between work and family obligations… and I often snap at the kids. And yell. I’m going to the gym now after years of making excuses and I’m trying to catch up with friends more. I know I need to do that whole self-care thing everyone talks about. I’m trying.”
Expert tips for taming rage
Parenting experts Dr. Justin Coulson and Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore have advice on how to keep your anger in check.
Prevention is key
“Get enough sleep, exercise, healthy food and relaxation so that you have the patience to deal with the normal frustrations of being around children,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
Have a mantra
Dr. Coulson suggests choosing a mantra, such as “Calm and kind” or “Patient and grounded”, and repeating it in your mind when you feel your anger rising.
Use “I” statements
Telling your kids they’re naughty doesn’t let them know what you expect from them. “Instead, use ‘I’ statements to describe your feelings and focus on behavior,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “Say, ‘I’m so mad because I asked you to pick up your clothes and they’re still on the floor. Please put them in the hamper now.’”
Do the opposite
If you feel like you’re going to lash out, Dr. Coulson suggests doing the opposite of what you want to do. If you feel like yelling, speak softly. If you want to send your child to their room, bring them closer for a tickle and a play.
Delay your response
When you feel like you’re about to blow, delaying your response even for a few seconds can help you calm down. “Take a drink of water, suck on an ice cube, take deep breaths or do math facts in your head,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. You may also need to step out of the room for a little bit. Going outside can also give everyone some breathing room.”
How to tell when you’re not OK
So, feeling overwhelmed is common and everyone blows up sometimes. But how can you tell when those bad feelings are more than just #momlife and are symptomatic of a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD)? PMADs include postpartum depression (also known as perinatal depression and maternal depression) and postpartum anxiety (also known as perinatal anxiety and maternal anxiety).
According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 8 American women experience postpartum depression with some states being as high as 1 in 5. A recent study found that COVID has bumped those numbers up dramatically. While 15 percent of pregnant and postpartum participants reported depressive symptoms before COVID, 41 percent suffered from depression mid-pandemic.
Postpartum depression can start during pregnancy or anytime in the first year after giving birth and in some cases it can last months or even years. It can affect bonding as well as the mother’s health and ability to care for her child.
Postpartum depression symptoms can include:
- Intense symptoms of sadness, anxiety and hopelessness that interfere with daily activities
- Loss of interest in regular activities
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Thoughts of self-harm or hurting the baby
The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EDPS) is a tool used by psychologists and doctors to quickly identify perinatal depression. You can take it online or ask your doctor about it.
While statistics for perinatal anxiety are hard to find because the condition often goes unidentified, the same study found that the proportion of pregnant and postpartum women experiencing moderate to high anxiety was 29 percent of before the pandemic and 72 percent mid-pandemic.
Symptoms of perinatal anxiety may include:
- anxiety or fear that disrupts your thoughts, interferes with daily tasks or stops you going out with your baby
- worries that are difficult to control
- constantly feeling irritable, restless or on edge
- tense muscles, tight chest and/or heart palpitations
- finding it difficult to relax and/or taking a long time to fall asleep
- panic attacks – outbursts of extreme fear and panic that are overwhelming and difficult to control
If you think you might be experiencing perinatal depression or anxiety, talk to your doctor without delay or call the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline on 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727). If you feel like your life is in danger, call 911.
May is Maternal Mental Health Month and May 5, 2021 is World Maternal Mental Health Day. Share your story on social media #maternalMHmatters
- There is good news for sufferers of PPD: we can treat postpartum anxiety and depression. You don’t have to suffer; indeed, science shows that you shouldn’t. Catherine Birndorf MD and Alexandra Sacks MD, discuss ways to treat PPD.