Are You Disciplining in Anger?
Rethink How You Disclipline
We’ve all been guilty of becoming emotionally involved while disciplining a toddler or preschooler. The combined stressors of parenting needy children plus tackling real-life duties like paying bills, housekeeping, and making dinner make it easy to have a short fuse.
But are you crossing the exasperation line and disciplining in anger—yelling, accentuating the negative, suppressing your feelings, spanking, or taking things too personally? “We experience an average of 30 frustrations (heart hassles or mini-crises) a day. How we respond to the daily onslaught of aggravation determines how much stress we experience,” notes Anna Maravelas, therapist, author, and president of Thera Rising, a company that teaches classes in the workplace on the effectiveness of disciplinary messages delivered with anger versus warmth.
Signs of Destructive Discipline
Christine Hierlmaier-Nelson, communications specialist with Expressive Ink Communications in Foreston, Minnesota, and author of Green Yellow Go! Nat Knows Bananas, a Pre-K book that teaches patience.
According to Hierlmaier-Nelson and other communication experts, you may need to rethink how you discipline (and learn how to calm yourself) if you find yourself:
- Wanting to punish instead of instruct your child
- Feeling out of control
- Being embarrassed by your child’s behavior
- Wanting to assert your authority as the parent
Learn how to keep your cool and stop struggling with this problem by becoming aware of and understanding your stress reactions.
Are You a Shouter?
Hierlmaier-Nelson says that one common stress reaction is what she calls “Old Yeller.” “Old Yeller is someone who vents stress through her vocal cords. If you notice your voice rising or getting louder, or if you voice your complaints—whether anyone is listening or not—you are likely an Old Yeller,” she says.
Why Shouting Doesn’t Work: Lori Nixon, a Turnersville, New Jersey, mother of two experienced firsthand why yelling proves futile. “Fights break out between my boys all day long over games or TV or who is touching who, and I really try to remain calm. Then one more small thing happens and I just start shouting over everything that has happened throughout the day. They put their hands over their ears or just tune me out, and I end up frazzled with my voice hurting,” she says.
What You Can Do: If you find yourself shouting before giving any rational discipline a chance, try this: “Focus on keeping your voice calm with others—even if you first have to go outside and scream for a while to get it out,” Hierlmaier-Nelson says, “And choose your words to communicate feelings and expectations rather than name-calling or complaining.”
Do You Suppress Stress?
Conversely, a parent who keeps stress tightly under wraps is what Hierlmaier-Nelson calls a “Houdini” type. “A Houdini is someone who stuffs stress or retreats mentally or physically during conflict. If you try to change the subject, avoid your feelings on a problem, hide in the bathroom, or tune out the chaos in your home regularly, you are likely a Houdini,” she says.
Why Suppressing Doesn’t Work: Cathy Meyers, a Harleysville, Pennsylvania, mom of three notes that she was a Houdini for years when her children were young. “I would be upset that my kids were not listening to me or acting in the way I wanted them to even after I had calmly told them what I expected over and over. They knew how to act but would not do it. I held in all my anger and worried constantly that I was not a good mother,” she explains.
Eventually, Meyers says she was diagnosed with stomach problems related to stress. “It was hard, but I had to learn to deal with my feelings and learn to express them calmly because I was making myself so sick—and then I couldn’t parent them well at all.”
What You Can Do: If you are a Houdini, Hierlmaier-Nelson suggests practicing communicating your feelings in front of a mirror and bring them up during a calm moment with your family.
Meyers says that she learned to take breaks from the kids and go into another room to calm down when she was most upset, then come back and talk to them about their behavior and her feelings. While she still worries, Meyers says this tactic helps her handle parenting stress much better now than she used to.
Do You Express Anger Physically?
“If you are a person who reacts physically to stress by throwing things, spanking reflexively, or yanking your children by the arm to make your point, you are a Dr. Jekyll,” Hierlmaier-Nelson says.
Why Physical Aggression Doesn’t Work: Parents with Dr. Jekyll tendencies should consider how they are modeling their behavior to their children—and how those physical reactions may permanently damage their kids.
In fact, a 2007 bill brought before the California legislature sought to add some Dr. Jekyll behaviors to the state’s definition of abuse. “Fatal abuse is too often the result of hitting or shaking by caregivers under the guise of discipline,” the bill stated. “Infants and toddlers are the most vulnerable because of their tender age and inability to defend themselves or ask for help. It is therefore wholly reasonable that the integrity and sanctity of their bodies should be afforded the greatest protection possible under the law.” The bill was dropped due to lack of support, but many anti-spanking groups still hope to criminalize parental corporal punishment.
What You Can Do: Focus on your breathing—and keep those hands behind your back. “When your breath is calm and regular then you can talk about the problem,” says Hierlmaier-Nelson. “Consider taking up an energetic hobby, like running or kickboxing, or seeing a counselor to get to the heart of your angry tendencies,” she adds.
Controlling Your Anger
Therapist Maravelas says that when disciplining, it is essential even on a physiological level for parents to remain calm. “If we blame others, we become angry—or “flood” [in biofeedback terms]—in reaction to frustration. Then our bodies react with cortisol and adrenaline, which is not healthy. Blood pressure mounts. Women have less of a physiological reaction than men, however they are increasingly at risk for flooding and its deadly risk factors, [like] heart disease,” she says, explaining that it can take up to two hours after the event for these chemicals to dissipate.
If the parent then has another frustrating experience during that two-hour period while levels of adrenaline and cortisol are still elevated, each subsequent event brings on even more stress.
“Parents can learn to control their reactions before flooding occurs,” Maravelas explains. To begin, she suggests that instead parents strive to deliver disciplinary messages with less anger and more warmth.
She recalls a parent and South Dakota farmer who learned to master loving discipline. Maravelas shares the following story: Bob was seated in his tractor while his seven-year-old Tommy was running around the yard playing with the family dog. Bob gave Tommy a warning about playing too closely to the auger, a dangerous, rotating conveyer belt that is used to move grain from a truck to the top of a silo. Tommy paid no attention. Instead of losing his temper, Bob stopped the tractor, climbed down, and put Tommy gently on his lap to talk about the situation. Bob chose to parent gently: He calmly explained the dangers of Tommy not listening.
“Bob had Tommy’s total attention,” says Maravelas, “and Bob could never have claimed his child’s rapt attention if he had flooded with anger.” Bob’s ability to discipline with less anger and more warmth will go a long way towards building a strong father-son connection—and increase the chances that next time Tommy will listen to his dad’s concerns.
How to Maintain Your Composure
“Keep in mind that children do not get up in the morning with a sinister plan to ruin your day,” Hierlmaier-Nelson says. She suggests focusing on three main elements to help maintain your patience and composure as a parent, especially when disciplining:
- Empathy: “Put yourself in the child’s shoes: Is he hungry, tired, jealous, or seeking your attention?,” says Hierlmaier-Nelson.
- Mindfulness: Try to stay in the moment; don’t worry about the 15 things that need your attention today. And remind yourself to be patient. “Sometimes a few hugs, a short storybook, or a promised activity later in the day can go a long way toward good behavior. Just make sure to follow through on promises,” she adds.
- Service to Others: As parents, we are helping mold our children’s behavior for their entire lives. When you view yourself as someone who provides service to your children, you can be calmer and more gentle, and in turn teach your kids how to become responsible, caring adults. The goal for them is to grow up and be well-balanced individuals who can recognize their emotions and appropriately deal with their own anger, Hierlmaier-Nelson says.
“Parenting is a high calling even though it doesn’t feel like it when you’re changing a diaper or cleaning up lunch. Your actions and reactions to your child will set his or her values and skills for later in life—from using manners to picking up after yourself,” Hierlmaier-Nelson says. “Model leadership—service and responsibility to others—and you will raise leaders.”
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