I have always been a bit short-tempered and this has transferred over to my parenting. I can easily get wound up by my children, who are aged five and six, and I end up shouting at them.
Last year was particularly stressful due to work and family issues and I was probably caught in lots of unnecessary rows with them. I went to a parenting talk recently which described the damage shouting can do, and it made me think about my behaviour.
My older girl does not seem to mind as much and gives back as much as she gets – she probably has the same personality as me – but my little boy is much more sensitive and I know he gets upset. He drew a family picture a while back and in it I was shouting. I felt so guilty.
Have I damaged him? I am trying very hard to be calmer and most days this works, though I am the first to admit I am not perfect. What advice do you have?
First of all, I think it is great that you are being honest about your shouting and willing to take responsibility for the impact on your children.
While of course the ideal is to resolve conflicts calmly, parenting is a very stressful job and most parents end up getting annoyed and shouting at some point.
Whether shouting does damage to children depends on the frequency and severity. Indeed, an occasional burst of shouting may do no harm at all and may even have the benefit of clearing the air once it is handled well afterwards. However, repeated bouts of frequent and excessive shouting and negative exchanges are very harmful to the child’s self-esteem as well as the parent-child relationship.
A loving relationship
What matters most is the quality of your relationship with your children. If most of the time you have a loving, connected relationship with them, then some loss of temper and shouting is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it can even benefit children if they see their parents as humans and occasionally getting annoyed or upset, as this helps them not feel so bad when they have angry emotions and make mistakes themselves.
In addition, by taking responsibility for your own feelings and behaviour and apologising when you have made a mistake, you provide a helpful model to your children in managing their own angry feelings and conflict with others.
Helping your son cope
As you have discovered, children handle their parents’ anger differently. Because your daughter has a similar personality to you, she might argue back and defend herself when you get angry with her.
This means the exchange is more balanced and she may not take on board the negative comments you have said. However, your son sounds more sensitive and may be more likely to get hurt and take a negative exchange to heart.
In helping him cope, it is important to give him the message that your anger is not personal to him and to encourage him to express himself back to you. For example, you might follow up with him afterwards to say, “I’m sorry I got annoyed, it is just that we were in a rush going out to school,” and then encourage him to tell you how he felt.
You want him to put into words what might be on his mind and to assert himself if need be. Perhaps he might say, “Well, it is not fair you blamed me,” or “I don’t like the shouting,” and so on. Try to finish these aftermath exchanges with a hug and a reminder of how much you love him.
Encouraging him to express his feelings and you listening to them will help him greatly and can repair any damage done by the original exchange.
Taking steps to prevent angry exchanges
As well as talking through and repairing angry exchanges, it is also important to reduce as much as possible the number of angry exchanges in the first place. To do this, it is important to reflect on what situations cause you to get angry and to take steps to address these.
For example, if the morning rush is a time when your temper flares, can you take steps to establish a better routine so you have more time? Or if you notice that you get worn out by the end of the day resulting in a short fuse, can you organise the day so it is less busy or so you get a 15-minute break to gather yourself before a stressful period?
The key is to be proactive and to change routines so you can avoid the same problems happening over and over again.
Have a plan of action
It is also useful to come up with a plan of action for getting through common stressful parenting situations. The goal is to have a range of options that allow you to deal with challenges and misbehaviour that are effective and which allow you to remain calm throughout.
For example, you might take a pause and pull back for a minute when you notice your feelings rising or you might name your feelings to the children rather than acting on them – “Look, Mum is getting a bit annoyed now, let’s all take a break and calm down.” In addition, you might employ effective consequences rather than shouting – “Either you all help now and tidy up or there will be no TV later,” or “When you can both share, then you can have the toy back,” and so on.
You might also find it useful to attend an evidence-based parenting course where these strategies are described in detail.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, July 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
John will be giving half-day ‘Positive Parenting’ weekend courses for parents in Dublin (November 2019) and Cork (January 2020). Information and bookings available here.