Dear Dr T,
Like many women of her generation, my mother was a “screamer.” Though she was a very good person who had no intent to harm, it was like she was on automatic pilot. Whatever the issue – small or big – my mom used yelling as the first line of defense.
Though I survived very nicely – thank you very much – I resolved to leave yelling out of my arsenal. I have B”H been by and large successful, yet I still do yell more than I would like – though definitely nowhere on the scale of my mother.
My question is twofold:
- How do I train myself for 100% (or close to that) success?
- Am I damaging my children – or our relationship – by the very occasional screaming?
Begin by giving yourself credit for both your awareness and honest desire to find the right approach with your children. Obviously, the same way one cannot diagnose a rash over the phone, it is hard to assess the effect of your lapses on your children without actually observing them. However, I do believe that good intentions are both a necessary first step and a predictor of success.
It is always important to keep in mind that we are human, not perfect. It is unrealistic to expect that you will get it right every time. It is actually quite a jump to go from an environment where screaming is the norm to one where there is zero screaming. The question is not whether you are the perfect parent – even in this one matter – but rather whether you can do a little better than the previous states quo. Gradual change is what we are after, because that is what is attainable – and sustainable. I say this not to limit your aspirations, but rather to help keep you grounded in reality.
When parental failures occur, as they inevitably do, we – the parents – need to know how to handle them. We see that we have let our child down. We feel that he may be confused by the different Mommy.
What can a parent do to turn this negative situation into a positive one, one that is a growth experience for the child and a healing moment for you both?
The first step is an obvious one, so obvious – or maybe so difficult – that we often ignore it. Apologize! Tell your child that you are sorry you lost it and are working on doing better next time. Absolutely resist the temptation at this point to tell the child how his behavior contributed to your loss of control. Remember, we want to teach our children what we know and believe: We are always responsible for our own behavior.
Apologizing at this juncture has the added benefit of your modeling the behavior that you want to see in your children. By allowing yourself to be vulnerable and having the courage to admit you were wrong, you go a long way in preparing your child to be a mentsch. By admitting that you have made a mistake, you reinforce the idea that “a mistake is simply a mistake” – but one which we have the obligation to redress.
Mom comes home from work exhausted and sees that the children have dumped their knapsacks in the front hall again. Before she knows it, the exasperated, “How many times have I told you to…” flies out of her mouth. The children, suitably chastened, pick up their stuff and tip-toe around Mommy for the rest of the evening.
When Mom has had dinner and has calmed down, she realizes that though the children do know better, so does she. She could simply tell them to pick up their stuff, or set up some reinforcement system that will help shape their behavior.
Before bedtime, she calls the kids together and says, “I am sorry for yelling at you about the knapsacks on the floor.”
So, though Mom regrets her loss of control, she has modeled for her children how to deal with the inevitable lapses in our behavior.
But, Mom has done more than that. She has shown her children that there can be occasional little tears in the relationship which can be repaired. The children learn that despite the sins of either – or both – parties, the relationship can be maintained. This life lesson is invaluable: it will positively impact your child’s friendships and ultimately his marriage.
Dr. D. W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the expression the “good enough mother.” What this phrase refers to is a mother who is not perfect – just good enough. Dr. Winnicott proposed that this “good enough” quality was necessary for the child’s psychological growth and development, because if the child lives in an all perfect world, he would not face any challenges. There would be no need for him to develop any coping skills and he would be naïve and defenseless in the face of future challenge. However, because these little lapses force him to learn how to cope, growth ensues.
Now I certainly am not suggesting that it’s okay to yell – or do any of the other things that we know we shouldn’t. But, the acknowledgement that we are imperfect humans is a wonderful example for our children. And, our desire to do the very best we can, despite all our limitations, well- that is an inspiration to us all.
The Book Nook: The Miriam Adahan Handbook: Living with Kids, Parents at Their Best describes with great sensitivity the challenges that parents face in raising their children. The author guides the readers in understanding and dealing effectively with their children.
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