If you have shouted or behaved badly with your children in the past, does this cause any long-term damage or is it possible to undo this negative experience with increased positive experiences?
In the past I was very stressed as a parent, and though I never hit them, I used to get into constant rows with my children, especially my older son (now 16). In recent times, I have tried to be a bit more positive, which I do find works a lot better.
However, I now find myself feeling really guilty about the way I behaved. Last week, my son make a comment about me being the ‘scary one’ compared with my husband, which made me feel pretty bad. Should I be worried?
Whether shouting at children causes long-term problems is a complex question. A lot depends on the individual circumstances and you have to consider the emotional climate in the family in totality.
Some children grow up with parents who have strong tempers leading to frequent rows, yet these occur in the context of a loving parent-child relationship where, as well as frequent rows, there are even more frequent positive moments of care and enjoyment.
Alternatively, some children can grow up in relatively calm homes, yet experience their parents as cold or emotionally negative, meaning that even mild and infrequent rows are perceived as emotionally damaging.
In addition, each child is different – whereas some are very sensitive and perceive a parent’s shouting as an act of rejection, some are more ‘thick skinned’ and so are less affected.
While, of course, the ideal is to have no shouting and no negative exchanges, this is almost impossible to achieve. All family relationships go through periods of stress, and if parents are honest, most say they can get to the point of shouting at or being negative towards their children and vice versa at least some of the time.
However, what matters is the overall quality of your relationship with your children. If you have largely a positive and loving relationship and are connected and enjoy your children, the occasional row does no damage.
You specifically ask in your question whether you can ‘undo’ negative past experiences when you shouted or behaved badly with your children. The good news is that generally relationships can recover quite quickly, especially when one person such as yourself is self-aware and willing to change.
Though people often believe the opposite, current family happiness is more determined by recent experiences rather than past events. If the recent days and weeks are full of happy experiences, conversations and connections then this is the best indicator of the quality of your relationship.
You have already noticed that your new positive approach in recent times has begun to result in you getting on better with your son, which is a great sign.
Opportunity to talk
Though it may not initially seem like it, the fact that he has said that he has thought of you as the ‘scary one’ is a further sign that your relationship is improving. This shows that he now feels free enough to share his honest feelings with you and you are available enough to listen.
Indeed, the fact that he has begun to share these feelings presents you with a great opportunity to talk to him about the past and even to apologise to him about what happened, as well as sharing with him your new positive approach.
Even if you have missed the opportunity to talk at the time, you could still discuss it with him at a later time. Pick a good time, when he might be relaxed and open and raise the subject with him. You could start by saying, ‘Remember you said I was the ‘scary one’, tell me what you meant by that’. The key is to be non-defensive and open to listen.
In my clinical practice with adults who are unhappy with their childhoods, the biggest wound is the fact that their parent is in denial or does not take responsibility for what happened or, worse still, actively blames them for any problems in the family.
The fact that you are self-aware, willing to listen and able to reflect on your actions is a great gift to your son. This provides the basis for healing for whatever negative experiences may have happened in the past.
Manage stress levels
It is important to keep up your positive ‘non-shouting’ approach though this, of course, can be a challenge. Whether caused by tiredness, work problems or the strains of the parental role, stress on parents is one of the biggest barriers to harmony in families.
When stressed, it is easy to become snappy and irritable and to resort to shouting as a means of resolving family conflicts. This can become a vicious cycle, whereby escalating rows increase your stress and cut you off from the support of your family.
It is important to become self-aware of your stress levels and to notice the alarm bells that could show that you are once again sliding into a negative way of dealing with things.
Make a list of strategies you can use to nip rows in the bud (such as pausing, walking away for a minute, reminding yourself to think positively) as well as to increase your own personal coping in the long term (such as prioritising exercise, relaxation and good work-life balance).
The first step to being a positive parent is adopting a stance of self-care and prioritising your own mental health as well as that of your children. The more supported and cared for you feel as a parent, the more able you will be to care for your children.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, June 2011. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
Sunday 22nd October: ‘Parenting Pre-Teens & Teenagers’ course with John Sharry (9am-1pm) Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Dublin, details here.