Making Sense of Mom Rage
It may describe the state of your mental health—but it doesn’t have to define you.
Expert Source: Kelly Nadel, LCSW
I will never forget the first time I read the expression “mom rage” in a headline on Facebook. It stopped me dead in my scrolling tracks because, while simple in context, the concept spoke to layers of my recent experience as a mother.
At the time, I was a new-again mom to my fourth baby, and my third child had just turned 1 the month before. My older kids (aged 4 and 5) had started school with a demanding schedule, and the responsibilities of my full-time, remote job weighed on my shoulders day and night.
Many parents can probably empathize that growing a family during the pandemic was an exhausting endeavor we didn’t expect. The stress of the world in combination with the anxieties of being trapped at home with no end in sight left me feeling suffocated and ill-equipped to parent the way I felt my children deserved, and that sense of inadequacy and guilt showed up in unfortunate ways.
I remember standing in the kitchen, wincing angrily and plugging my ears because I couldn’t stand the noise for another second. I yelled at my kids to stop being so loud—the irony. I would wake up in the morning and immediately feel a brick on my chest whenever a child would cry to be held, or if someone asked for a snack, or if my son needed to nurse.
At any moment I would become angry, stomping around the room and breathlessly streaming my inner monologue on why everything felt unsustainable. Even insignificant things like crumbs from breakfast on the floor would trigger an episode because my margin was just too thin to handle one more thing. If my husband was at work, I would send him painfully long texts chronicling the emotionally excruciating moments of the day because I just had to get it out, and I didn’t want to show my ugliest—and scariest—sides to my kids.
When I saw that reference to mom rage, I knew enough women must have had similar experiences for it to be trending, and that gave me hope that I wasn’t alone. Following that moment, I came across plenty of related content discussing postpartum rage and mom guilt, the consequences of constant overstimulation and poor self-care, how parents are doing everything alone without a “village,” and how juggling childcare, a job, and anything else is simply too much by today’s standards (the ones we create for ourselves and the ones shoved down our throats thanks to social media).
Recognizing Mom Rage
In general, rage can be defined as intense and uncontrolled anger, and though mom rage specifically has received more attention recently, the concept is not new, according to Nadel.
“If you have ever found yourself entirely overwhelmed and screaming at your children in what feels like an out of body experience, this could be defined as rage,” she says.
Often these episodes are triggered by something seemingly small, such as misplaced keys, a miscommunication with a partner, or in my case, a messy floor. While the crime doesn’t fit the punishment at first glance, Nadel says these reactions are for good reason.
“Rage episodes are a sign of chronically unmet needs and sometimes that tiny toy on the floor is the last straw. Everyone has needs, even and especially mothers,” she explains, adding, “For far too long the maternal narrative has been one of selflessness and martyrdom whereby mothers have been praised for giving themselves away in the name of parenting. This portrait of motherhood serves no one and feeds a destructive story around raising children. Instead, we want to empower mothers to ‘put on their own oxygen masks first,’ so they can more effectively meet the needs of themselves and their family.”
For many of us parents, we have landed at a point in modern parenting that is just hard, and it’s brought out questionable sides of our actions—so our team decided to seek some answers. Kelly Nadel, LCSW, director of clinical training at Good Inside, a community platform that helps solve family challenges, shines light on the idea of mom rage, what it is, how it affects the family, and what parents can do if they feel they need some help.
One reason mom rage has caught fire is because the pandemic amplified maternal experiences of overwhelm, burnout, and a lack of support, says Nadel. “Stuck at home with a whole new ‘job description,’ many moms were teaching and parenting and working with almost no resources to refill the proverbial tank. Even grabbing coffee with a friend was out of the question,” she says. “The pandemic really highlighted how burnt out parents are, and also how critical caregivers are; those who take care of children truly make the world go round.”
Another thing to note is that rage differs from anger, though both emotions—all emotions—provide context to the state of our personal needs.
“Anger can be a productive emotion that gives us messages about our needs when we are still in a state of mind to be able to use these messages and make some progress,” explains Nadel. “Rage, on the other hand, can be looked at as the culmination of too many suppressed, ignored, or shut-down messages around our needs. The result is often a collapse of feeling and action into a rageful explosion. This means there is no space between the feeling and what we do with the feeling. These episodes often lead to feelings of shame and badness which further complicates the problem because not only do we have the feeling of rage, but now we have to manage equally intense shame which can often [lead to] stagnant growth and change.”
An important takeaway here is that if this resonates with you, know that you are most definitely not alone. It can be painful to identify and recognize patterns of rage in your parenting, but there are accessible coping mechanisms and resources—and likely a few sets of understanding ears nearby—to help you make positive changes.
Identifying Your Triggers
We all have individual triggers that can affect our nervous systems and stress responses. Mothers have traditionally been encouraged, perhaps even expected, to ignore their own needs on a daily basis, which can perpetuate a lack of awareness of these triggers. According to Nadel, this results in feelings of exhaustion, overwhelm, irritability, sadness, or loss of identity, all of which can be triggers for a range of big emotions, including rage. The key to changing your reaction to these triggers starts with knowing what they are and understanding how they affect you personally.
“Making a list of things that activate you is a great place to start,” says Nadel. “Is it a cluttered house? Feeling isolated or ignored? Are you bothered when your children fight? These are all common triggers.”
For me, a big trigger can be weekday mornings when my whole family is in the kitchen at once and it’s very loud, mostly from demands for breakfast or my older kids getting too rambunctious at 6:30 a.m. Starting the day with so many (noisy) needs feels like an assault on my nervous system and results in me trying to be very controlling, draining all my energy in the process. Once I recognized that mornings in our small, busy kitchen with lots of chaos and not enough coffee in my system was a recipe for disaster, I was able to at least try to avoid it.
“The more specific you can be about your triggers the more likely you will be able to catch yourself before you react,” encourages Nadel. “Learning how to respond to your triggers is a process that requires compassion and mindfulness. Becoming aware of your triggers is the first step.”
“Catching myself” before the reaction involved enlisting the help of some noise-canceling earbuds (like, real earbuds, not ones that rattle off all the notifications from my phone literally in my ear), so I could pack lunches and sign permission slips with less tension. I also started getting up early enough to brush my teeth, put on some clothes, and do whatever else is required of me to feel human; on good days I will throw a load of laundry in the washing machine and get an early start on whatever daily tasks await to keep our household running. This little bit of time helps me better greet the day on my terms, so I feel more in control and in a calmer place.
Understanding the Impact of Mom Rage
Maternal rage is certainly hard on mothers, but what are the effects it has on children? Some researchers report that yelling and other forms of harsh verbal discipline—such as cursing or using insults—can be equally as detrimental as physical punishment to the long-term well-being of adolescents. These children may be more likely to experience results similar to physical abuse: increased levels of anxiety, stress and depression, lower self-esteem, and an increase in behavioral problems.
While scary and hard to stomach (for both parents and little ones), Nadel encourages that all parents have the opportunity to repair relationships after an episode, which is good news considering all parents will make mistakes at some point.
“Ruptures happen all the time in families, and we always have the opportunity to go back and rewrite the ending,” she says, offering an example of how to approach your child after an emotional outburst.
“Try using this script: I want to talk to you about [what happened] earlier. I was screaming and very angry. That must have been really scary for you. I want you to know that my screaming is not your fault or your responsibility. You’re allowed to be upset. I am working on managing my feelings, and sometimes they come out in really big ways. I love you and we can keep talking about this.
“Providing a safe space to repair with your child is a huge step,” she says.
Finding Ways to Cope
Stopping the cycle of rage doesn’t happen overnight, and every person’s journey and needs are different. However, there are tactics you can start utilizing at home today. Nadel recommends these three practices to help reduce episodes of maternal rage:
1| Be kind to yourself.
Say these words: “I am a good mom who screamed at her kids. I am not a bad person, I am a good person having a hard time. I can repair [the relationship]. I am good inside.”
This may sound optional—it’s not. Before you can do any actual skill building around rage, you have to believe you are a good person doing hard things, otherwise shame sneaks in and keeps you feeling terrible and stuck. Knowing that you are good inside is the first step. Make this your mantra. Create an alarm on your phone and tell yourself every day, “I am good inside.”
2| Assess your feelings.
Take inventory of the following every day: How do I feel? What do I need? Becoming more aware of your feelings and needs is a key step in learning how to take care of yourself and reduce rage episodes. Getting into this practice is about building up your awareness of your needs, rather than allowing them to erupt.
3| Find an outlet.
Determine who you are aside from being a parent. Do you love yoga? Reading? Nature? Food? Find something that fills you up that is totally separate from your role as a mom. It is so important for mothers to have fulfilling lives outside their roles as parents, not only because it’s healthy for mom, but also because it is important for children to see their mothers as people with identities beyond their families.
When it comes to seeking professional help, Nadel recommends that people seek assistance early and often.
“Remember, you are the pilot of your family and you can’t fly the plane if you’re too overwhelmed. Parents deserve support and resources, and therapy is one way of helping you meet your needs,” she says, adding, “The Good Inside Membership is full of resources that address all of these important topics plus a huge community of like-valued parents.”
Ultimately, coping with maternal rage involves making the commitment to choose yourself because you are worthy of having your needs met, too. While this may feel counterintuitive as a parent, it’s an important step in reframing how you view yourself, how you approach day-to-day conflicts, and how you create margin in your life to prevent becoming overwhelmed and burnt out in the future.
Shortly after I started seeing emotional instability in my own parenting, I was fortunate enough to have my mother-in-law agree to come over twice a week to help out with the kids so I could run an errand alone or accomplish work tasks during normal office hours. I also started going to a workout class a few times a week to channel a lot of my frustration. It’s not a perfect solution, but those two factors have slowly helped me create some space in my head and my heart for all the challenging moments of parenthood.
While I am still sometimes crying tears of frustration versus tears of joy, I continue to find solace in the fact that this topic is being widely discussed, and in turn, hopeful that mothers will learn to communicate their needs and receive the support they deserve.