We fantasise about being fantastic parents. We all want to raise happy and healthy children. We dream about it, journal it, talk about it and try really hard for it. For most of the part, it seems doable too.
The beautiful bubble bursts when we take the baby home from the hospital, and all well-meaning family and friends retreat from the “baby zone”, leaving you to start doing what you have been so eagerly awaiting.
Parenting is not devoid of stress, conflicts and anger. Finding ourselves in the deep end of the pool is when we awaken to figure the phenomenon out. Believe me, no one achieves a perfect parenting journey, I still haven’t.
Whether it is trying to get the kids to understand how playing with drawers can hurt, or calming them down during a work call, or getting them to finish dinner before you fall off your chair with exhaustion, parenting is full of speed bumps. This often leads to something, which never coloured our parenting fantasies earlier—parental anger.
Being vexed or annoyed over matters is understandable. However the boundary between irritation and anger or rage is unfortunately crossed too quickly for us to be able to apply breaks without collision.
Parents report that in anger they end up yelling, throwing things or being physically violent with children. Throwing things is quickly corrected as it often leads to loss of precious collectibles such as antiques or expensive phones or laptops. Parents usually stop after one or two such losses. Using hands is usually a no-no as it is more obviously abusive, so I wish to address yelling, which is the most common manifestation of parental anger.
Credible research suggests that yelling at kids can be just as harmful as hitting. A child who is yelled at is more likely to exhibit anxiety, sadness, defiance and low academic achievement. Yelling can make children feel unloved, insecure, stressed and disconnected. It can literally change the way your child's brain develops. Harsh verbal discipline actually makes things worse, creates long-lasting psychological problems for the children and damages parent-child relationships.
Yelling is an impulsive reaction to a disappointment or an unmet expectation. There are several things to reflect upon and cognitively dispute if we want to alter this reaction.
Desire is more rational than demand: It is natural to hope for certain kind of behaviour or discipline from children. Demanding it or expecting it changes the tonality and intensity of our reaction when the demand is not met. It helps to empathise with age, maturity and psychology of the child we are addressing. Realistic and flexible expectations are the keystone to nipping angry reactions.
Disappointment is healthier than anger: This is connected to the desire versus demand point. When a desire is rejected or failed, we may experience irritation, as opposed to a demand unmet, in which case we may get furious. As parents, it is important for us to flex the muscles responsibly to cope with disappointments. This is simply because our children are individuals and will go through the processes of learning and experiencing at their own pace. Reflecting on your style of coping with disappointments even outside the parenting realm will help you understand the challenges and irrationalities you need to overcome.
Impulsive behaviour compounds the problem: Taking some time out to consciously breathe, to review the situation, accept or empathise with simple facts of the matter and then respond to the behaviour and not attack the person, may sound like an impossible feat to achieve in moments of emotionality. But these can be learnt and aced with time. Remember to delay your response time to a mistake made by your child, and to awaken in that moment to your goal as a parent to partner, guide and support lovingly. Empathise with your child’s inability to completely absorb your message stemming from various reasons ranging from an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex to your communication style. And remember that you do not need to express, correct or influence immediately to be effective.
Reaction versus response: Many times I get asked by exasperated parents that knowing all of the above is well and good but what do we actually say or do in a tough situation? It isn’t easy to stay “calm and conscious” in face of safety and health issues, when the school bus is waiting and my child won’t get off the pot or when he or she is pulling out a friend’s hair off their head! While in such a situation you need to step in quickly, it need not be invasive or punitive. What helps is expressing your disappointment clearly and assertively, in the behaviour, removing children from the stressful environment, and stating your honest emotion (for exampl sadness, disappointment, annoyance ) and concern is a better way forward. Responding by having a word with them questioning and listening, [for instance “what just happened in there, you can tell me, I want to hear all about it.”] instead or reacting with yelling, may give you more to work with your child.
To conclude, I would like to emphasise that if the wretched moment did take place where you landed up yelling, don’t be too hard on yourself. Drop the guilt as soon as possible before you overcompensate with gifts or grants, reinforcing the problematic behaviour. What works for me is an honest conversation where I apologise for having yelled or for my rude words, and that I will make every effort to remember not to behave badly again. And I truly make it a point to learn from my mistakes.
Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.