Dear Dr. T.,
Sometimes when I look into my children’s eyes, I shudder to think at the parent I have become.
Let me explain. I wake up every morning with the best of intentions: I will keep my cool and be positive with my children. But, like failed dieting, my resolve melts sooner or later in the day – when a child spills, I am late again, or there is just too much stuff for one set of parents to deal with. I quickly become irritable and angry, and I lash out at whoever is in my path. The pain and confusion in my children’s eyes is only matched by the guilt that I feel.
Though this is a pattern that is reactive and unhealthy, do take a moment to praise yourself for honesty, consciousness, and a sincere desire to do better. Many a parent is unaware of how he is seen by his children – and defensive as well (“I have to yell for them to listen,” etc.). You have taken a huge first step by accepting responsibility for your behavior and acknowledging that it has a negative effect on your children.
You also show tremendous insight into the cause of much of parental yelling. You are right: parents do not wake up saying, “I will yell/punish my child today.” The typical parent has good intentions, but – for a variety of reasons – cannot withstand the trials of the day. Unfortunately, the pattern of yelling is reinforced by the fact that in the short run it works: it scares the children out of their wits and into compliance. It also provides the parent with an (unhealthy) release of his pent up emotion. However, in the long run – which is what counts – it leads to damaged relationships and wounded children who may suffer from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and may possibly be “at risk.”
When dealing with troubling issues, our first step is to work on understanding them. So, we need to figure out, “Why do I keep doing something that I know is wrong, something that I definitely don’t want to do?” Obviously, there are as many answers as there are parents, but here’s a thought.
We live in very stressful times. Though our own grandparents worked harder than we do – certainly physically – their lives were far less complex. In contrast, the typical parent today has an easier, yet far more complicated life – with carpools, myriad means of communication, social and financial commitments – all of which our forebears escaped. The effect of the cumulative stress – which is defined as “too much, too soon” – is to make us on edge. Keeping all our balls in the air and not letting them drop is a constant struggle. So, if a child has a tantrum, he misses carpool, you are late for work, have to face the “music,” and perhaps come home late for dinner and so on. Little wonder that the most common of occurrences (tantrums and spills) sends us over the deep end.
What’s a parent to do? Short of moving to New Zealand, how do we stay calm when the going gets rough?
A concept that many have found helpful is that of “lowering the temperature.” Here is how it works: When we are cooking, every little flame adds to the conflagration, but when we are cool, we can tolerate the little fires and even manage to put them out. Similarly, the calm mom can brook a tantrum, while the stressed-out mom overreacts to even a minor incident.
Lowering the temperature is no easy matter: it takes proactive planning on the part of both parents. Though I am unaware of any magic, here are some ideas you may find useful in generally lowering the temperature.
- Avoid doing that last thing that puts you over the top. You could push yourself to make that extra dish for company and then catch up on your rest on Shabbos, but you can also choose to let it go.
- People are more important than things. You don’t want to ignore a crying infant, but an undusted table never hurt anyone.
- Prioritize. That four-year-old in an ironed, starched shirt looks darling – that’s true. But only you can decide if it is worth the extra hassle.
- Develop a positive mindset where you have realistic expectations and choose your battles. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
- Deal with any issues of perfectionism you may harbor. Strive for competence instead.
Though there may be many factors that contribute to your tension and loss of control, when you feel calm, you will have a better ability to deal with your children. And though keeping the thermostat set at “low” is a lifelong project, you will find that even the smallest drop in temperature will have a positive ripple effect in your family.
The Book Nook: Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim Ginott is a classic that has revolutionized parent-child relationships. Dr. Ginott’s innovative approach to parenting has influenced an entire generation of experts in the field and is well worth reading. He has also written Between Parent and Teenager.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com