Who in your family are you really angry with?

Last month I posted some ideas about managing anger when your children have really aggravated you.  I realize that suggestions like these are much easier said than done.  No one is perfect, but practice helps.

Now I have another thought about anger.  There are times that a child does something provocative, and a parent responds in anger, and a bystander might wonder, “Wow.  What was that about? Was it really about turning off the television or stopping the video game or annoying a sibling?”  Perhaps you have had one of those moments when you realize later that your response was out of proportion to the problem at hand.  Let’s face it–all parents have.

In my work as a child psychologist and parent coach I often have the opportunity to examine this issue with parents.  I find that sometimes parents are angry at the situation at hand, but they are also angry with someone else as well.  Perhaps you are a single parent, and you are very angry that you have been left alone to deal with the challenges of getting a child ready for bed.  Or perhaps you have two parents in the family, but you disagree about how much television or video game time is appropriate.  Thus, when you child resists turning off electronics, you are angry at you partner as well as your child.  In fact, when you scold, you might secretly hope that your partner hears what a problem the disagreement has caused.  Perhaps your child spoke to you in a tone of voice that you associate with an ex-spouse.  The situations are many and varied.

Children exist in a family, so it is no surprise that their behavior takes on particular meaning in the family.  These are always complicated situations that raise questions that often parents find painful to examine.  Yet for the sake of the child it is so important to examine these issues.  Children understand when parents’ anger is out of proportion to the situation.  They can learn to act angrily themselves from these situations.  It is so helpful to children when adults can react to them in the moment based on that behavior in the moment. That is, remember that this is a eight year old (or however old), not a representative of whomever else you are angry at.   It helps if you have a game plan already established for yourself about how you will respond to refusal to turn off electronics, delaying bedtime, etc. If you can give yourself a script, it is likely that you can manage to keep your words and actions appropriate to the issue at hand.

The more difficult issue is to examine that other anger that gets mixed up with children’s behavior.  Perhaps you and your partner need to have a frank talk about parenting policies and your feelings about it.  Perhaps you could use a consult with an expert in that area to advise you both.  Perhaps you need to do some work to come to terms with your anger and sadness about a failed relationship so that you can separate those feelings from your child.  These are complicated, tender issues, but dealing with them will make you a better parent and probably a better person.  Parenting is a hard but rewarding job, and no one does it perfectly.

Worried by your anger at your child?

Many parents are concerned by the level of anger they feel toward their children. It’s a good reason to seek some help.

When you realize that you are angry a lot of the time or you are surprised by your anger, it’s time to consider how to manage it.  You might be thinking that you wouldn’t be so angry if your child would only do as you wish.  If he would pick up his toys or she would try harder on homework, you wouldn’t have to yell, you might think.  Doesn’t she get it, that if she would only do it, you wouldn’t yell at her?

Well, as Dr. Phil says, “How’s that working for you?”  When we scold, yell, and lose control as parents, we are teaching behavior.  Scary thought, isn’t it?  And if the angry behavior isn’t getting the behavioral results you want, it’s time to step back and look at the big picture.  For one thing, it is probably time for everyone to take a time out.  Yes, parents too.  You can’t solve problems when both sides are very angry, so take time to cool off.  Come back to the issue when you are calmer.  This doesn’t mean you give in.  You come back to the issue when both are calm.  It could be that in the moment you child does not obey you, but coercion is not a good way to get things done in a family.

When you come back to the issue, talk calmly and name the problem.   Avoid generalizations like, “you always and you never.”  Never use insults or call names.  Empathize with you child’s point of view.   “I know you want to watch another show very much.”  Ask your child for solutions to the problem.  Accept what he or she says with respect.  If the solutions offered are not practical, explain why.  Decide what the solution will be (together if you can) and then walk away.

It’s true that this is a long process, and you might not get the result you want right away, but yelling or threatening to get cooperation is not effective.  It’s painful all around to have hurtful arguments.  If you can address issues in a reasonable manner, inviting children to solve problems with you, you will teach them behavior that will serve your family and your child well for years to come.

Morning routines

Now that children are back in school, some familiar concerns are showing up in my office.  One of the most common is difficulty getting children out the door to school in the morning.    Parents find themselves nagging, scolding, and threatening, and still the behavior remains the same.  Sometimes it gets worse as the children get angry too.

Here are some thoughts for dealing with this problem with grade school children.

First, is your child getting enough sleep?  Sometimes children won’t get out of bed in the morning because they are really tired.  Grade school children need about ten hours of sleep a night, so if your child is getting less than that, you might need to look at your evening routine.

Once you’ve determined that lack of sleep is not the problem,  consider whether you allow enough time for your child to do what she needs to do in the morning.  Does she need to get up, be focused, and hit the ground running?  Sometimes you need to get up earlier to give your child enough time to do what she needs to do, complete with some distractions and unexpected events (like the permission form that’s due today and she just found it…)

OK, enough sleep and enough time and still continued delaying, distracting, and nagging.  Yuck.

1.  At a relaxed time talk to your child about the problem in morning routine.  Do so respectfully without blaming.  Get her ideas about what might help.  You might be surprised.  Have her make a list of the things she needs to do before leaving for school.  She can make a list with space to check off each task as she completes it.  Post the list in a public place.  Then in the morning you can ask her to check the list for the next task.   This way she has an investment in the solution because she made the list.  And you can let the list tell her what to do.

2.  Stop nagging.  It isn’t helping is it?  Remind your child twice about each step, but then stop.  Nagging only creates resentment, resistance, and opposition. Perhaps you’ll be late to school, but if you hang in, you’ll have a more cooperative child who takes responsibility for doing what she needs to do.  It’s worth it.

3. Praise her enthusiastically for whatever she does to get ready.  This is very important.  If you want to build motivation and initiative, praise every effort that  leads in the right direction.    Then prompt her to look at the list for the next step.  Behavior change happens little by little, piece by piece.

I hope that this helps your morning routine.

The Long View

Recently I spent several days with college classmates.  We caught up on our lives and of course, we talked about our children.  Some of us had children who had learning disabilities, ADHD, or emotional problems.   But by this time of life, our children are mostly in college and beyond. It was interesting to see how these young people had found their way into young adulthood.  Some have followed the fairly straight path that their mothers did.  Others have chosen alternative routes, but mostly they are productive, independent, young adults.

Many times when I am working with a  parents and their children, the parents ask in distress, “Will she ever go to college?”  “Will she be able to leave home?”  They might be asking me about a third grader. Probably they have just learned that their child has a learning disability or an anxiety disorder.  And likely we are at the beginning of treatment when life is pretty chaotic.  Perhaps the child has meltdowns about homework.  Or the parents can’t get the child out of the door to go to school in the morning.  Or the child has a terrible time getting to sleep at night and keeps everyone up late. These parents are spread pretty thin, and they are alarmed at how poorly their child is functioning.

At times like these I am glad that I have been in practice for over 25 years, that my husband and I  have raised our own son.  And that I’ve also supported numerous friends as they worked their way through the emotional, academic, and social challenges of learning disabilities, ADHD, and anxiety, or depression.  I have seen so many children go through very tough times in school, at home, and with friends, and I have seen many of them get to a place in which they can be productive young adults.

I have been reflecting on what seems to make the difference, at least in my professional and personal experience.  First, these parents kept trying to find the right school and therapist and activities and services for their children.  Involved parents are always a part of success.  At the same time, they did not protect their children from challenges.  They believed in the child’s ability to cope, as long as proper supports were in place.  Third, the parents all liked their children.  They were able to get past the anger and hurt caused by tantrums and misbehavior. They found aspects of the children that were enjoyable, and the children knew that their parents believed in them. Last, these families are all at least middle class.  They have the financial resources to find the services their children need.

So when the frightened parents ask me whether their child will leave home, I tell them not to rule it out and to stay in the game.  And we begin where they are to address the multiple needs these children present.

Thoughts on Families and Gratitude

Last year I attended a workshop on helping parents change their children’s behavior called Parent Management Training.  It was offered by the Child Conduct Clinic at Yale University, and it taught an approach developed of thirty years of practice and research with real families.  The first two things I learned to teach parents in Parent Coaching are to be clear and calm when asking the child to do something and tho thank her promptly and enthusiastically when she complies.  In fact, I ask parents to be prompt and enthusiastic in thanking their children for whatever they do that they were asked to.

I have been amazed at how this simple, yet profound, adjustment sweetens family life.  We all love to be appreciated.  And it feels good to be grateful.  Parents are then in a stronger position to address the behavior problems that remain.  An attitude of gratitude is simply therapeutic all around.

Recently, I came across a quote by Melody Beattie from her book, The Language of Letting Go, on gratitude.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It tuns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

In fact, psychologists have recently found data to support the concept that gratitude does more than simply make us feel better.  it is truly good for us.  As reported in The Boston Globe, psychologist David DeSteno, of Northeastern University found that subjects who were grateful for unexpected assistance after a frustrating task were more likely to be helpful to another subject.  DeSteno says, “Gratitude leads people to act in virtuous or more selfless ways.  And it builds social support, which we know is tied to both physical and psychological well being.  The article also quoted psycholgoist Sonja Lyubomirsky, of the Univeristy of California at Riverside, “If you don’t do it regularly, you’re not going to get the benefits.  it’s kind of like if you went to the gym once a year.  What would be the good of that?”

Parents’ expressions of gratitude, especially linked to desired behavior, improve children’s behavior and the relationship between parent and child.  And the consistent expression of gratitude is good for the parents’ well-being.  There’s more than enough good to go around here.