A favorite anecdote of mine is about my then 4-year-old son telling me that my problem is that I “overblow.” Asking him what that meant, he explained that I don’t get mad when I am mad and then I get so mad that I “overblow.” Since then I have learned that while “overblowing” does often apply to parents, it applies as well to children.

No one likes being the target of someone else’s anger, especially if it is someone close to you. Children’s anger sometimes feels like an accusation — as if they’re saying you are a bad mother. Sometimes they even say as much. A child may be angry because he couldn’t have something he wanted, or do something he wanted to do. His angry behavior is his way of protesting, but instead of it sounding like something about him, we hear it as being about us — his behavior is our fault. And we want to feel — and our children to feel — that we are “good mothers” even when asking children to do things they don’t like.

Children’s loss of control can make us start to feel out of control ourselves. Because the behavior is unacceptable, we too often get focused on trying to stop it. Often this ends in an escalation of the situation. Not able to control our child’s behavior, our own anger takes hold, and it sometimes seems as though we are getting down to our child’s level.

The problem is that because children have not yet developed inner controls, but act out their feelings, feelings and behavior seem to be one and the same. The feelings take form in behavior, and because the behavior feels threatening we label it “bad.” Young children are unable to tell the difference between feelings and behavior and so begin to believe that it is the feelings that are bad.

The fact that angry feelings are joined emotionally to attacking behavior in childhood seems to color our response to anger throughout life. We were all children once, and sometimes still have trouble separating angry feelings from behavior, both in our children and in ourselves. We may still be afraid that the intensity of our feelings will be matched by the enormity of our actions. It can begin to feel unsafe not only to express anger but to feel it.

I think that is what my son with 4-year-old wisdom was trying to tell me: If you don’t express anger when you feel it, the anger just grows until you then “overblow.”

Perhaps, without realizing it he was also explaining why he, too, would sometimes overblow.

In fact, our job is to help our children learn that their feelings are acceptable, but hitting, screaming and throwing things are not. We can only teach this, though, if we can feel that our child’s anger is not dangerous, does not make us bad mothers, and does not have to be wiped out in order for our own wishes to prevail.

To accept your child’s anger and teach him to express it differently, you have to be ready to hear disagreement. You have to be able to tolerate the fact that your child doesn’t like something you are doing — in fact doesn’t like you at that moment. In other words, you have to risk feeling like a “bad” mother. If you can accept this you don’t have to counterattack with your own anger, or give in, making you feel helpless and your child’s anger seem powerful and frightening — to him and to you.

In other words, you won’t have to “overblow.”

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.