#66 – Navigating Triggers and Anger as a Dad
In today’s episode, we have the pleasure of speaking with Jon Wood, a devoted dad and husband who has worked hard to overcome struggles with anger while parenting a child with extreme ADHD. Jon shares his story and offers valuable insights and tips on how to manage anger and find ways to cope with parenting challenges.
We discuss the role of expectations in frustration and anger, the importance of being empathetic and understanding your child’s perspective, and the need to recognize and manage triggers. We also talk about the helpfulness of therapy, medication, exercise, and finding ways to cope with stress and anger.
Finally, we discuss the importance of honesty with your partner and seeking support from them, setting boundaries, and prioritizing self-care.
Tune in to hear more from Jon as he shares his wisdom and experiences on navigating the ups and downs of parenting.
Like this episode? You can check out more of our Dad Podcasts.
Will: Hello, and welcome to another episode of A Dad’s Path podcast. I’m Will Braunstein. Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Jon Wood, a devoted dad, and husband. Jon worked hard to overcome some struggles with anger while parenting a child with extreme ADHD, and he’s here to share his story and offer some helpful insights and tips on the subject. Welcome, Jon.
Jon: Thanks. Yes, thanks for having me, Will. Pleasure to be here.
Will: Yes. Jon resides in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two kids. It’s beautiful out there, so wish we could be in person, but good to see you.
Jon: Yes, thanks. You too.
Will: I want to just dive right in. Speaking just for myself, managing my temper, my anger, being more patient certainly has been more of a challenge as a dad than I expected it would be. You’ve been down that road, and you’ve, sounds like, successfully navigated a lot of those challenges. I’d love to just dive in, hear your story a little bit, and maybe start at the beginning. Where did you start saying, “Gosh, my anger is something I want to get a better handle on,” or– Talk to me.
Jon: Yes. I think for me, initially, becoming a dad– It’s funny because I feel like in other aspects of my life, anger is not even on the radar. It’s not something that people would describe me as. It’s not any one of my top five good [chuckles] or bad qualities. In this case, at least for me, I would say it’s very situational. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m angry at my kids all the time, but I think that the root of a lot of that frustration, maybe we can also call it that, is either expectations, or just not being able to be in control of a little person, which, obviously, you can’t.
Starting out as a new dad, that realization is tough. It’s something that I’ve never experienced before, and as a new parent, nobody has, and it’s just a totally different experience. Then as the kids got a little older– Right now, I’ve got a seven-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. The seven-year-old’s got extreme ADHD, and that can be especially frustrating sometimes. I try to be empathetic, but it’s also hard because you don’t know what that person is going through and how that person is experiencing life.
There have been cases where I’m just holding his shoulders and saying, “Focus on the thing,” or, “Just put on your shoes,” or, “Why are we such picky eaters?” Those are just both typical and also typical, but ramped up, in his case, and in our case. That can really lead to a ton of frustration, and sometimes anger.
Will: Yes, I imagine so. I don’t think my child has extreme ADHD, but I face similar challenges, like you do. [laughs] You’re on, like you’re saying, a ramped-up level. One word you mentioned that was interesting to me, that resonated, was expectations, and the role of expectations in some of those challenges. Can you dial in there a little bit?
Jon: Yes. I think for me, it’s especially tough to shift permanently your expectations of your child. Maybe mine are too high, to begin with. You’re not dealing with someone who’s got a fully formed prefrontal cortex, and that doesn’t happen till they’re 26 or so. My assumption is that they can’t keep it together because some of the conversations seem like they’re totally with it, and you’re joking, you’re on the same level sometimes, and then the conversation or the dynamic shifts, because they’re in a bad mood.
It’s like, whoa, this is someone who really needs a lot of help, a lot of guidance, or still needs help wiping their butt after going to the bathroom. It’s like, wow, that’s a world of difference from how we were just having fun and laughing over the same thing. I think that’s part of the sticking point around really keeping those expectations in check about behavior, about how your kid’s going to handle a given situation.
Whether it’s something from sharing toys with your sibling or hearing about how a few friends “broke up” with them at school, and what does that do to mood, then how does that trickle down to your relationship with your parents, in our case. The expectations thing, I feel like I know, on one level, that if I can successfully reset those expectations, it’s only going to help, because then it’s just not going to be that constant miss of expectations.
Seeing my son still struggling with putting on his shoes because he can’t focus on doing that because he’s so excited about something bright and shiny, figuratively or literally. I feel like that’s the key. Even though I know that logically, emotionally, it’s still so hard to switch that.
Will: That makes a lot of sense. That really, again, resonates with me, in terms of– You can hang out with them as they get older. You talk to ’em, you’re playing, and you feel you’re on the same level as them. It’s easy to forget they’re kids. They don’t have a prefrontal cortex that’s developed, so they’re going to lose their temper in extreme ways, or have extreme reactions to things. If you treat them like you would treat an adult doing that, which I think can be easy to do, you’re going down the wrong path. Right?
Will: You’re taking it personally, and they’re not adults. That’s the main thing.
Jon: It’s funny, and that’s the other thing, in terms of taking it personally. Even though they’re maybe taking out frustration on you, which in turn can really create this negative spiral, it feels so personal. It feels like– Oh man, the other day, my son said I was an effing idiot. I was like, “Whoa.” I was really proud of myself that– Well, a little bit of a context, was that he didn’t want to shower. I put him on my shoulder, not too forcefully, but I was like, “Okay, let’s go. We’re going to shower.”
We walked down the hall, he calls me that name. In the moment, yes, I did have a visceral reaction of like, “Whoa, that is not okay. We have to stop that behavior.” I felt attacked, and again, from that personal level. This was a personal attack. What I said was, I said, “Okay, you’re automatically losing dessert.” I didn’t yell. That’s the part I’m really proud of myself for. That’s something that I still do struggle with, and that’s how some of this anger can come out, but in terms of that personal piece, it’s not personal.
It feels personal because there’s something that’s directed at you, but I still on some level feel it’s simply frustration on their part. You’re making them do a thing that they don’t want to. It’s not, “I hate you.” It’s like, “I hate this.” They just don’t have the tools and the wherewithal to communicate it in that way. It just comes out like, “You’re the worst,” or whatever it comes out. It’s hard. It’s really hard. There’s no sugarcoating that.
Will: No, that’s right. Nice job on not losing your temper there.
Jon: Thank you.
Will: I’m not sure how I would’ve done. Yes, I think it was described to me once as a power struggle. A lot of parenting is a power struggle, and it’s uneven, because as the parent, our job is to guide our kids to do things that are good for them, and there’re going to be things they don’t want to do, that we make them do. Take showers, brush your teeth, whatever it is. That’s our job as parents. For me, it’s been helpful to view it as a power struggle.
Understanding kids don’t have a lot of ways to express themselves either. That’s true. This is that power struggle way of communicating, yelling, ignoring you, or whatever it is. It’s just a different lens to view it through.
Jon: Yes. I don’t know if that would help me so much, in terms of the power– I mean, who wants to lose a power struggle to their kid?
Will: Well, yes.
Jon: You have to be smart enough to say, “Yes, okay.” Walk away. Whether that’s walk away from the conversation, or maybe you just need to walk away after nine times of hearing, “I only want to play violent video games,” or something silly like that. I know you don’t really mean that, but you want to win this, or something’s really important to you, so I’m not going to engage in that. I think that’s okay. Sometimes I feel I’m not being a good dad because I can’t discipline effectively in situations such as that.
I’ve talked to my therapist about this too, and he validated that walking away can be okay. To me, that’s a little bit enlightening, and it makes me feel less guilty about either not being an effective dad, and effective disciplinarian, or that I’m avoiding going head-to-head, or solving it in the moment, which I feel is oftentimes a gut reaction, maybe more so for dads.
Will: Yes. I think that’s right on. I am totally in favor of walking away at times. At the very least, because you know how you feel when you’re angry. Think about your child, how they feel when they’re frustrated and angry. Probably even more, or even less rational, right? You’re trying to talk sense into them. They’re not able to listen, no matter what you say, no matter how loud you say it, they have to be in a place where they can receive what you’re saying.
Just as you have to be in a place where you can speak, not out of anger. Not you, but us, as dads, or it just escalates. I think that’s right on as well. Was there a moment, or place, where you’re like, “All right, this is affecting my relationship with my child,” or where you said, “I want to get help,” and what did that help look like? If you don’t mind diving in there.
Jon: Yes, absolutely. Couple pieces there. This was almost three years ago, my parents were in town from New York, and my stepdad actually took us aside after the kids were going to bed, like, “Hey, we think that maybe–” our son is not just a rambunctious three-year-old, or four-year-old at the time, he might need some help, either therapy, medication, something. While that was extremely difficult to hear in the moment, and the reaction’s like, “Whoa.”
Who were you to tell us, as parents, what to do, and what your analysis is? You don’t really know the day-to-day, you’re just visiting, and all those things. In retrospect, yes, we are happy that that moment happened, as tough as it was at the time. That was one of the triggers, acknowledging our tough experience as parents and to make a plan, to say, “hat can we do? Are we going to go down the medication route or not?” Having that conversation, as two parents, thinking about the pros and cons.
Even before that, going to a behavioral psychologist for our son, having an evaluation, even though that also, at the time, seemed like an admission that something was wrong, either with him or with us as parents, or our strengths. Can we not handle it? Is there some deficiency on our part? That evaluation was helpful, enlightening, he’s a smart kid, but yes, he was diagnosed with severe ADHD, and that led us to think more seriously about the medication route, which ultimately we decided to engage in.
He is taking medication, which is very helpful. I’m also happy to get into. That led us on that parallel path, of we’re going to explore the idea of medication. We’re also going to explore, at the same time, the idea of therapy, both for us as the family unit, I’m also exploring therapy myself as a dad, just what does that look like? We’re also in therapy as a couple’s therapy, which is all good, honestly. Obviously, I’m pro-therapy.
Will: I’m an advocate too, just to interject. I think that’s great you guys are doing that. Absolutely.
Jon: Yes. That was one pivotal moment that led us down those paths, and they’ve been helpful. I can go in any direction there too.
Will: Like you said, you started with therapy, then some behavioral stuff, and then ended up with medication. What did that pathway look like, and what does it look like today, in terms of what you guys are doing?
Jon: One early step within the therapy piece was something that I had never heard of at the time, PCIT, or Parent-Child Interaction Therapy. That flavor is all about limiting your questions and your commands with your child. We practiced this with our therapist and with our son, real time, both with the guidance of the therapist and within a safe space, like a playroom, at the place we were doing this therapy. There are a couple of pieces. One is limiting the commands and questions during playtime.
The other is using tools like repeating back what they’re saying, reflecting on the positive actions that they’re doing. They’re building a tower really well. Like, “Wow, you built a really tall tower,” or if your child says, “This tower is the best,” you just simply say it back, “This tower is the best.” It seems so easy, and part of it is, but it definitely takes practice. In meditation, it’s easy to focus on your breathing, but do you do that often? No. [laughs] You’ve got to dedicate time and space to that.
That’s, I guess I would say, a recommendation, in terms of something to explore, because that’s something you can do if you set time for it. If you do it for five minutes, or 10 minutes of play, and you’re constantly thinking, limiting your commands, not questioning anything, ignoring tough behavior that you don’t want to see, and praising, reflecting, repeating back. Those are some of the tenets and ideas around this form of therapy. That was one step.
Will: Just real quick– It makes sense, everything you’re saying, in terms of letting your child play and encourage them. What’s the overall purpose of that? It’s just during playtime, it’s a way you guys are connecting? What’s–?
Jon: Yes. it’s just during playtime, it builds more of a foundation of you are a positive, supporting parent, who’s not directing the play. By using commands and questions, often the parent will try to gain some control of where that play is going. Yes, that’s a great follow-up question, because the play, in this case, is really meant to be child-directed. They’re making up the story, building the tower, or pivoting to some other activity, and that’s fine.
Instead of saying, “No, let’s stay on the tower. I want to build one just like you because your tower was great.” Like no, now we’re playing with cars, and that’s also fine, because what’s the big deal? We can pivot to cars, and if we dedicate this time and space to what the child wants to do, yes, part of the idea is around letting them decide and just totally going with the flow, just reinforcing those positive pieces and the good behavior coming out of play that they own.
Will: Yes, absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. It almost ties back to what we were talking about earlier, with the power struggle. You’re saying, “Hey, you have all the power right now. This is all you. Whatever you want to do, you are in charge.” Power struggle is not quite the right word, it’s not a struggle, because you’re the parent, so you win. It’s like–
Jon: Most of the time, or some of the time.
Will: Yes, it might be a struggle.
Jon: You can win.
Will: Yes, right. You might need to force it but it’s not like two colleagues lying for a CEO spot, or something like that. You will come out on top, but the question is, “How?” Viewing it as a power struggle probably isn’t the right analogy, but I think it is interesting, with that therapy we’re talking about, just how you are giving your child that power, and you’re supporting them. Very cool. It sounds like therapy was helpful, and then medication has been helpful.
I’d be curious, what else has been helpful for you, maybe, personally? Walking away, I think that was a great one. That’s a great example. Do you have other, like count to 10 in your head, or–?
Jon: I do. I have other ideas too, yes. The count to 10 thing, that would be a very much in-the-moment thing. I’m lucky enough to have a job I really enjoy, an amazing wife and partner as a parent, and even hobbies that are new and old. I feel like taking one step back for a moment, that macro lens of your life, and not having everything be around parenting, is super important. If I were a stay-at-home dad, I think that I would struggle more.
I would be even more consumed with parenting, and it would be tougher to have work as an example as that safe or disconnected space for my family, which I really enjoy. Those relationships and even friendships are super, super important. If I’m finding myself often frustrated with parenting, just knowing that, “Hey, you know what? I joined this new gym because it’s got extended hours,” even if it’s for an hour after the kids go to bed, I can look forward to that during kid bedtime, which is tough.
I even think that that particular scenario was really helpful when I was trying to put my son in the shower the other day, just thinking that, “Okay, well, I’m going to be at the gym soon, and that’s going to be all right.” Having that, having other things in mind, I think that’s okay too, to distract yourself so you don’t get upset in the moment. I think the goal is not yelling, obviously, not inadvertently hurting your kid, or something like that, if you’re holding them too tight or whatever it might be.
Just making sure that you stay in control, and doing whatever you need to accomplish that goal.
Will: Yes, I think that’s right on. It’s almost like not reacting, not letting whatever happens happen, or react in a proactive way, is a better way, like you were saying. Yes, I think looking forward to the gym, and you touched on it. There are a lot of dads who listen, who are stay-at-home dads too. For those dads, and for dads who work and who are super busy, you need self-care, and self-care is not just going to the gym. That’s a great one, but it’s taking care of yourself. It’s mentally taking care of yourself.
You mentioned friendships. That’s something that moms do, unfortunately, I think, a better job at than dads, whereas it’s so important to go out. I found it both, going out and talking to dads, and not talking about our kids at all, then the other side is being like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m ashamed I did this,” or, “I’m really struggling with this,” and then the dad says, “Yes, me too” and I just feel a hundred times better, knowing I’m not alone.
Jon: I totally agree, yes. It’s just harder. I feel like we need, as dads, more license to talk about our kids, and struggles with our kids, and at least from my perspective, it seems easier for my wife to do so with her friends. You’re absolutely right, if you do bring up something like, “Oh, my kid’s the pickiest eater in the world,” which happens to be a current struggle, you get that response right back. You’re like, “I know, why can’t my kid eat anything but frozen pizza?” Why don’t we lead with that?
Is it like a machismo thing? Is it a pride thing? Maybe sometimes kids are just not in the front of our minds when we’re with our friends, and that’s okay too. I think if you are struggling, even if you are a tiny bit brave, or proactively bring that up with a friend, even in a small group of friends I think you’ll be surprised like that. They’ll say, “Oh, me too.” I think that’s actually a more important tool than we’ve realized, potentially, and especially as dads.
That’s hugely important, and one that, as part of my new approach, or evolving approach, is something I want to draw on more.
Will: Yes, that’s fantastic. I say this all the time, but I’m just going to repeat it, because it’s important. You said you bring it up and you’ll be surprised how people will respond. By the same token, a lot of dads are like, “I don’t have any friends. No one hangs out with me, da da da.” I’m always like, “Did you reach out to them? No.” It’s the same idea when you start reaching out to dads, some dads get overwhelmed or are just too busy, and don’t want to go out, and that’s fine, you can’t change their mind.
Other dads who you’re friends with, will be the opposite and say, “Yes, I really could use a beer, or a tea, or a walk around the park,” whatever it is. Yes, being proactive that way too, because it’s not as easy as it was before you had kids, to keep your friend group, to hang out, to say, “Hey, you want to grab a beer after work?” It’s not that realistic anymore to just randomly do it, or it’s a lot harder. It just takes planning, which is doable.
Jon: Yes, or just takes trying again and again. We’ve got a group of a few dads, and say, “Hey, I’m going to this place tonight, or after bedtime.” Usually, I can’t make it because that’s way too short notice. As dads, maybe we’re worse planners. That’s okay. Keep trying. That’s what I try to remind myself too. It’s not personal, usually that they can’t do it, or whatever. You just got to keep trying, knowing that everyone’s having their own form of kid bedtime struggle, as an example, or lots of priorities that we have, especially with one or multiple kids.
Will: Absolutely. I want to end on resources that you’ve used, or you’ve found, I don’t know if there are any in particular. You talked about therapy was really good. I mean, formal therapy, and then also, we were just talking about friend therapy, so to speak, and working out. Were there any books or anything else you found, that have been particularly helpful in overcoming some of your–?
Jon: Yes, one that as part of the new year, I just ordered but haven’t yet cracked into, radical acceptance, just to really frame my thinking around what can I control versus what can I not control? I know that I cannot control things, and maybe, on an emotional level, it feels like I can, or should be able to. That’s one piece. Going to the gym is huge and if you can’t go to the gym, even doing anything at home that makes you sweat, is going to be helpful, I think. I mean that, literally. You want to sweat.
Things that don’t make you sweat are still great, but I think that sweating is actually really important. Other tools that I’ve used are just trying to find a cool hobby that you can really get lost in. One that I’ve played around with, maybe for six months or so now, is roasting my own coffee beans, giving those beans to friends and colleagues, and just being proud of something pretty simple, but a little bit unique and quirky, and my own personal brand. That feels really good. It’s along the line of giving feels good, you know?
Will: You didn’t offer me any. [laughs]
Jon: Yes, sorry. I’ll have to bring some.
Will: No, it’s awesome, though.
Jon: Yes. I’m also a little bit of a biohacker, in terms of trying different supplements sometimes, to change my state of mind. Even experimenting with things like microdosing nicotine, microdosing psilocybin, making sure I get enough vitamin D, fish oil, and some of those staples, a little bit. I’m trying to expand and experiment in those ways too, knowing that when I put all that together, that whole picture, from the macro lens, is going to trickle into some of those micro-moments where I have found myself frustrated and angry with a child, that I can sometimes control, but many times not.
Will: No, that’s great. Thank you for sharing all those. For other dads listening, I think the name of the game often is acknowledging you have something you want to get better at, whether being more patient or get less frustrated with your kid, whatever it is. Once you identify it, then you can find those tools and you can overcome it. I guess that’s a big message. Just having a child who doesn’t have ADHD is a really big challenge.
Here’s Jon on the other side, with a child with extreme ADHD, he’s smiling, and he is saying, “Yes, there are things that could go better, but–” You’re on the other side, you’re in a good place.
Jon: Yes. It’s a day at a time. Also, kids change. My son was eating sushi two meals a day for more than eight months, which is great, because it’s healthy, but super expensive and not sustainable for many years, for sure. Now he’s only eating frozen pizza from Costco, which is cheaper, but not as healthy. At least I know that there are phases, and that it won’t be Costco Pizza forever. Sometimes he’ll eat carrots, so I celebrate that win.
Not every day, but I’ll take an occasional carrot, and being okay with that, I think, ties into that trying to reset your expectations a little bit, and forgive yourself a little bit. That it’s not all in your control.
Will: Yes, that’s awesome. I just want to leave with one anecdote. The way that Jon and I connected was through his wife, who I went to elementary school with, and I will just say she would never have been described as calm in elementary school. A lot of energy, a lot of vivacious–
Jon: Definitely. She’s to blame. Just kidding.
Will: Let it be on the record. Anyway, Jon, this was really a fantastic conversation. For me, it was just great to hear you open up, I learned a lot and I was able to open up with you. I think our listeners are going to get a lot. Thank you very much for joining us here.
Jon: I hope so. Yes, it’s a great time. I appreciate it.
Will: Awesome. Well, take care, and we’ll talk soon here.
Jon: Okay, sounds great. Thanks, Will.