Three Things Your Irritability Might Be Masking
"I hate that I've become this person who has this irritability and impatience always simmering inside of me...I feel like I could explode at any minute."
This is the sentiment a parent shared with me when we met a few weeks ago. As she described this ever-present irritability, always bubbling right beneath the surface throughout her day, she went on to explain the frustration and shame this feeling also elicits. She doesn't want to feel this way; she doesn’t want to be a parent who is always yelling and at the end of her rope. She feels miserable inside, and believes she’s a miserable person for other people to be around, too, mostly because of her short fuse and bitterness. And yet, she was also feeling lost about how to begin to change her emotional state, given her day-to-day parenting reality.
It sounded so familiar to me, having worked with so many parents who describe a similar feeling, and who also express the same desire to experience something different, but having no idea where to start.
Identifying and naming the emotions you're experiencing creates a place to begin.
When I was able to help this parent sit with and be more curious about these feelings (versus trying to ignore or offload them, due to the overwhelm they bring), things started to shift for her, ever-so-slowly (and gently). She had the perspective to identify that it wasn't irritability and impatience with everyone around her that was causing her so much distress. Those were simply masks for the resentment, grief and fear she is experiencing as a parent on a daily basis. They were symptoms of difficult emotions left unattended and ignored for years, slowly accumulating and exerting more control over time.
While the emotional experience from parent to parent is unique, based on their own background and situation, those identified experiences of resentment, grief and fear are common to so many parents with whom I work. Which means they’re worth exploring in greater detail here, so you can identify if they’re a part of your current experience as well.
Resentment is an emotion that hovers somewhere between anger and disappointment, and is a close relative of jealousy. It’s often a nagging feeling that you have been treated unfairly in some way, and with this belief comes feelings of regret and anger.
In the unique parenting experience of supporting a child with intense and relentless challenging behaviors, it can sound like this:
"I have no life outside my child and their needs."
"When I decided to become a parent, I did not sign-up for this."
"I feel like a prisoner, and my child and their needs are the things holding me captive."
"No one understands what a nightmare this is. They think they have problems? They have no idea how good they have it."
Grief related to parenting a child with challenging behavioral symptoms is highly personal, and often far more complicated than the more commonly-understood grief experiences we navigate at other points in our life. In her book, Rising Strong, the noted researcher and author, Dr. Brené Brown, defines grief as having three foundational elements:
The loss of what could have been, but never will.
Longing for what will not be, and for meaning and understanding of what is.
And feeling lost — always feeling the need to reorient ourselves to our world, to our emotional selves.
Dr. Brown suggests that grief is perhaps the emotion we fear most, because of the darkness it brings. It is simply easier — and more comfortable — to be angry than sad.
For the parents I’ve supported over the years, buried grief often sounds like this:
"I wanted so badly to be a parent, and I am devastated that it will never be what I hoped for and imagined."
"I’ve given up on the idea that our family vacations will ever be fun or easy."
"I used to have a lot of close friends, but that’s all gone now… they just don’t understand my reality, and I am tired of trying to get them to understand."
"My daughter is 14 and she literally has zero friends. None. I can’t even remember a time when she was invited to a birthday party or over to a friend’s house."
Fear is an intense emotion, frequently attributed to stress and anxiety, that emerges as a response to an anticipated danger or threat. The danger or threat might be physical, emotional, or psychological — it might be real or imagined. Parents of kids with neurobehavioral challenges, kids who struggle in such intense ways, understandably experience fear: fear for their child’s safety, fear of what their child’s future might hold, fear about the impact their child is having on siblings or their marriage, and fear about what the future holds for the parent.
For these parents, fear can sound like this:
"If my daughter is acting this way now, how will she ever survive as an adult in the real world?"
"I am devastated by what this is doing to his siblings. I’m really scared to think about how this will impact their relationship, long-term."
"If this behavior continues, she’ll be kicked out of school again, and then we’ll have nowhere else to send her. I can’t even think about her being home all day. Her being in school is the only break I get."
So, if this is a parent’s experience — if there is a constant, simmering irritability that is masking deeper emotions like resentment, grief and fear — what are the next steps to take?
Where can healing begin?
At first, merely recognizing that these complex emotions were at the heart of her chronic irritability and impatience was a difficult realization for the parent with whom I was speaking, but it also brought her relief. The relief came from believing that if she could begin to move through those complex emotions, recognize each for what it actually was, and begin to unravel those sources, then perhaps, over time, she could experience less distress in her day-to-day. She knew it would not happen overnight, and was able to accept that truth, but she was also feeling brave enough to take the first steps and supported enough to begin the work.
And this is where healing and transformation really take root for each of us.
While every experience is unique, the commonality is that when we don’t explore, and then address (gently, with tenderness and compassion), what’s actually happening within us, those distressing emotions gain more power and control over our daily lives. When we name them and begin to work through them, they lose this power and we begin to experience more peace.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.