Recently I spent some time with a father who struggles to control his anger towards his children. He described a scene that had played out in his home shortly before our conversation:
My teenage daughter said something really cruel to her sister. Super cruel. So her sister is balling her eyes out and I ask what’s wrong, and she tells me her big sister has said this really nasty, hurtful thing to her. And I just lost it, like I always do. I raced into the room where the teenager was, and I’m like shouting at her, and I backed her into a corner and was slapping her arms, and then SHE tells me to stop abusing her. She doesn’t know what abuse is.
As we reviewed this unhappy incident, I asked the father what the outcome of his anger had been?
Had his daughter learned the lesson that he had hoped to teach her? He figured she’d probably learned her lesson – or at least he hoped so.
I asked him to stop speculating, and describe the outcome of his anger – the immediate repercussions. How did he feel? How did his daughter feel?
His response was slow in forming, but insightful. He said
The immediate outcome was that I acted like a jerk. I went off. For her, I think that I probably created a sense of anger in her towards me – maybe even hatred. And all she could think about was self-preservation.
I asked what happened when he walked away?
She packed up her school bag and ran away to go to school, but it was like an hour early or something stupid like that. She just took off and wouldn’t come back.
My next question was “What outcome did you want?”
He responded that he wanted her to stop being cruel to her little sister. When I asked if that was all he wanted, he nodded, and then hesitated. Then he said
I wanted her to not just stop it. I wanted her to know that behaviour like that is not tolerated in our house.
This was ironic, given his behaviour. We discussed this, and then we talked about the long term outcomes from such a scenario, where anger is used as the ‘teaching tool’ of a parent. He had more insights:
When I’m angry she doesn’t hear what I say.
When I’m angry I betray her trust in me as her dad
When I’m angry all I really do is harm my own relationship with her
When I’m angry I’m ineffective as a teacher
I added that if we want behaviour to be internalised and to become automatic, we’re not going to get there through anger.
Instead of shouting, threatening, and backing our kids into a corner when they do the wrong thing, we need to be patient, soft, gentle, kind, and we need to talk with love. This is counter-intuitive. Many parents think we need to come down hard on them, be tough, and force that point home. A gentle, soft approach is unnatural.
Additionally, this unexpected, softer approach is particularly difficult to do when we’re angry! But for effective teaching, and for relationships to remain intact, anger is ineffective and counterproductive.
Love, patience, kindness, and thoughtful questions (out of the heat of the moment) are far more likely to lead to effective teaching, and internalised morals on the part of our children – especially when they’re teens.
I recommend the following strategies when you’re angry and your child needs to be taught a lesson:
- Wait until things have cooled down before you deal with the issue.
- Start softly. Harsh start ups lead to ineffective outcomes, defensiveness, and more anger.
- Ask questions to help kids describe the consequences of their actions.
- Set limits clearly and assertively.
- If it starts going pear-shaped, back up, restate your motives (I’m trying to make it so our family is a happy place), and start again at #1 above.
Critics will argue that this soft approach is why we have so many disrespectful, rule-breaking kids. If so, you haven’t read the article properly.
Kids need us to set limits. But the thing that matters is HOW we do it. Research and experience show that firmness is needed, but when it is combined with anger, we push our kids away and promote more, not less, acting out. The aggressive, punishing approach to parenting creates more problems that it solves. It’s just that you don’t see those problems when your back is turned.