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There is nothing automatic about anger. Pain doesn’t make you angry at your kids. Thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions make you angry. These trigger thoughts, as you know, fall into one of two categories: shoulds or blamers. This is how shoulds and blamers trigger anger at your children.
Parents usually have specific beliefs about how life with children should be. For instance, “Children need a definite bedlime so that they can get enough rest.” “Children should be able to help with household chores.” “The family should eat dinner together every night.” Children should always clean up what they mess up.” “We should have no closed doors in this family.” “After a certain time at night, children should be seen and not heard.” “A family should pull together in limes of stress.”
When your rules and expectations (explicit or implied) are violated, it seems like someone has made a deliberate break with what is right or safe or moral. It is the perceived deliberateness of the infraction that makes parents angry. Remember Marny’s anger at the playground? It isn’t just that Joey grabbed the cups away from his brother. Mamy triggers her anger by thinking “He wants to hurt the baby, he did it on purpose!”
Blaming triggers anger by making your pain the child’s responsibility. Blaming also contributes to the illusion that children do “bad” things on purpose to make you mad, to frustrate or defeat you. But children are not responsible for your pain. They don’t do things to be bad. Children have only one motivation for behavior: to satisfy basic needs. Their primary goals are to be fed, to belong, to be safe, to be significant, and so on. All their behavior is goal oriented. Although sometimes it is difficult to determine the goal of the behavior, you can assume that the behavior exists to satisfy some need.
Dreikers (1987) characterizes “misbehaving” children as discouraged children who may have mistaken beliefs about how to get their needs met. They may be discouraged about feeling accepted and significant. They may have the mistaken belief that they can only feel important if they have your full attention. They may have the mistaken belief that they can only feel powerful if they are the boss and get what they want. Blaming doesn’t help children to behave more appropriately. It simply labels them as “bad” for trying, as best they know how, to take care of themselves.
Trigger thoughts happen so quickly that you may not be aware of how they fuel your anger. But if you review any anger-provoking situation, you’ll find that (1) you had expectations that were not met, and (2) you believed that your child misbehaved deliberately (or even maliciously).
Remember Matt, whose mother was sent to the intensive care unit? His stress originated from the fear of loss. But his anger at his daughter was triggered by what he said to himself. “She knows I have to get out of here so she’s slowing down to bug me.”
When you find yourself getting upset, pay particular attention to the five self-deceptions that trigger anger at kids.
1. The entitlement fallacy. “I want something, so I ought to have it.” Peter wanted everything to be perfect when he and his wife were entertaining his business associates. His anger at his children when they were messy and noisy at dinner stemmed from the belief that his children ought to be aware of his needs and cooperate. In fact, kids have no interest in impressing strange adults and probably wouldn’t know how to impress them anyway. Children’s behavior is always motivated by their own needs, not yours. They might have been more cooperative if they were cued into what was expected of them and were reinforced for doing so.
2. The fallacy of fairness. “Children should recognize the rights of others. It’s only fair that others’ needs should sometimes come first.” Nancy believed that she deserved some break time to relax and that the children were being unfair in denying her legitimate need. In fact, children (especially young ones) are very limited in their ability to empathize or even be aware of needs other than their own. A parent-child relationship is, by definition, unbalanced and unfair. Nancy certainly needed a break from her children, but expecting fairness from young children is a hopeless case.
3. The fallacy of change. “You can make children different if you just apply sufficient pressure.” Sue’s parents believed that their disapproval would change her mind about moving in with her boyfriend after graduation. But their pressure only achieved the opposite result. Sue resented being manipulated and was more determined than ever to assert her autonomy by moving out. The constant bickering made her feel more withdrawn from her parents at a time when she could have used their support and understanding. Children, just like adults, resent and resist pressure, even if it’s “for their own good.”
4. Conditional assumptions. “If you really loved me, you would do what I want.” Justin’s mom felt rejected and angry when Justin showed obvious excitement as he prepared to go to his father’s house for the weekend. She said to herself, “If he loved me, he’d hate that selfish bum for leaving us.” The truth is that it’s possible to love and care for someone and still not meet his or her needs. Justin’s need to maintain his relationship with his father was immensely important to him. So important that he risked disappointing his mother.
5. The letting it out fallacy. The child who hurts you should be punished. Meg certainly felt like that when her daughter came home two hours late. It seemed like her daughter deserved every bit of anger and rage she wanted to express. This is a common and dangerous anger-generating belief. It often leads to overreaction, physical aggression, and feelings of being out of control. The underlying assumption is that “I will make you feel as bad as I feel.” But expressing that kind of anger is terrifying and dangerous to the child. It can destroy your relationship with your children as they erect psychological barriers to protect themselves from your anger. The desire to “let it out” is very attractive, but parents who act out in anger do not get what they really want—considerate, responsible, cooperative children.
A word about physical punishment. Besides being dangerous and devastating to children, it just doesn’t work. Hoffman (1970) studied the moral development of children and found that children who feared physical punishment tended to have less guilt, were less willing to accept responsibility, were less resistant to temptation, and had fewer internal behavioral controls than children who were not physically punished. Corporal punishment may even prevent the development of internal controls. The child may feel that it is okay to misbehave if he is willing to take the consequences (being hit). Children who are not physically punished must first understand why their behavior is wrong and then renounce it.
Another problem of controlling behavior through physical punishment is that the lesson learned is situation specific. For instance, a boy who is spanked for stealing will resist stealing again only if he is pretty sure he will be caught and punished again. Behavior that is controlled by fear rather than by internal controls must be maintained by fear as well.
Corporal punishment frequently leads to serious behavioral and emotional disturbances. Herman (1985) cites studies that show a correlation between corporal punishment and stealing, truancy, aggression, hostility, lying, depression, and low self-esteem. There must be a better way.
Reflection Exercise #4
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