Lately, I have had a lot of parents calling in, laden with guilt, treating me a little bit like a confession box.
The pandemic has pushed many parents to the edge of intolerance and frustration with their children, who find themselves at the receiving end of anger outbursts, anxiety attacks or melancholia. Parents are shattered in the face of their own inability to get a grip on their emotional demonstrations in the worst forms. Screaming, hitting, slapping, spanking, dissing, criticising and/or avoiding our kids was never part of anyone’s plan.
Last week, one mother wept through most of her session, sharing that her anger had been out of control, calling herself a monster. Another mom confessed she hides herself in the bathroom every dinner time, as by the end of the day she just can't handle her twins anymore. A father said he was ashamed of threatening his son with a shoe in his hand, when the little guy threw a ball at him to catch during a meeting. One mother messaged me saying, “I have read all the books I need, I know all the do’s and don’ts, rights and wrongs, but I still slip. It kills me to see my child’s face after I have removed my frustration on him. “
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The periodic cycle of anger, frustration, guilt, sadness, exhaustion, leading back to anger, has thrown many off, despite the deluge of parenting wisdom around.
While we are intellectually aware, emotionally adept and behaviourally in control the most we can, the heat of the pandemic has gotten to most families. With patience running out, a lot to do in a day and no solace in sight, we can all relate to and empathise with each other’s high strung reactions to people around us. There is no question that children are being exposed to undesirable tumult.
Can there be some simple corrective action? Can the impact of this ever be undone? Will children be traumatised for life or can we help them get over it? Truth is we never know. But we have to try.
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There are a few scientific and psychological constructs that we can pin hope on to believe that the trauma caused to children due to the emerging and increasing impulsivity amongst parents, can be reversed, repaired or limited.
While aggravated or in a emotionally aroused state, children often do not differentiate between negative or positive attention. This means that even if you are shouting at a crying child, they do not get impacted by the words or the volume, but in fact may feel comforted by the attention.
There is also research evidence that children do not form concrete personalities and thinking patterns until young adulthood and that the human brain is consistently changing and learning throughout life. This could mean that we have a lot of time to undo or repair matters of the mind and personality.
Children are also more adept at learning and letting go, and far less egoistic and vindictive than adults.
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Armed with research based evidence and hope, we can start with one of the most important steps in healing for children, and that is for the parents to forgive themselves. The longer you stay stuck in the memory of the impulsive judgement lapse, the more the guilt and unhealthy manifestations of it. Forgiveness is not forgetting and being nonchalant about what happened. Forgiveness includes compassion for our imperfections and mistakes, and a resolve to be a better version of ourself.
The next important thing is to address it with your child. Many of us have grown up with incidences and emotions constantly brushed under the carpet and moving on. The orientation to parenting has come a long way since then.
In order to achieve both forgiveness for ourselves and addressing it with our children, I have put together a checklist for you to use on your five fingers when you know you have crossed a line with your child.
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Take responsibility for your action: Instead of giving excuses, blaming children, critiquing others or citing pandemic related stress, take onus of what you did, and the poor choice you made in your behaviour. Owning up to our mistakes reduces feelings of confusion, self blame, self doubt and shame in children. who are very quick to internalise their parent's emotionality as their own fault or misdoing.
Apologise: A genuine and sincere sorry when we hurt our children, does more than comfort them. This is warranted not to fix things, reduce our guilt or to instantly patch things up, but to communicate to our kids that we are not proud or happy about what happened. An over reaction on our part makes the child feel bad about themselves, and not what they did. An apology also demonstrates an ability to regulate emotions and the willingness to solve problems. It helps them feel significant and valued.
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Talk about their feelings: Help them identify and name their feeling or emotion. Accept their feelings, however negative or intense. Empathise with their state and tell them you know how they feel, that it is okay for them to feel this way. When children feel negative emotions towards their parents, they often burden themselves with guilt and anxiety. Please take a moment of courage and compassion to let them know that it is absolutely normal for them to feel upset, angry, disappointed with their parents. Encourage them to talk to you about their feelings.
Ask how you can make it up to them: Each child is different in a myriad ways, even twins with the same DNA and environment. They feel hurt about different things, and so it is best we ask them how we can make things better. One may like a hug and the other may prefer story time. One may be assertive enough to give you a list of corrective action steps and the other may say, 'It's fine' and let you off the hook. Asking them will help you take this diversity and uniqueness into account, and communicate that you value their feelings and your relationship with them.
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Accept growth areas, triggers and get help: While it may be hard to rise above the anger and guilt at that time, recognising our flawed reactions as human error, and taking note of what needs to be changed, digging deeper into our past, finding out ways to cope better with challenges, developing better strategies for emotional regulation and that we may need to talk to a professional is important.
It is without doubt that parents are highly stressed at the moment. It is also true that children are not getting to lead the “normal” life we all knew. Every home is facing some consequences or the other, with its members undergoing unknown forms of stress. At the risk of sounding overly optimistic, I do believe that this pain, stress and extreme tension can push us all into the direction of enquiring and learning new meanings of life, our priorities and investing in our loved ones. It is in this breaking down that we can repair, reconstruct and reload, to embark a new journey of self realisation and growth, as individuals and as parents.
Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two