"I am the father of two young children, and I like to think of myself as a nice guy. Recently I have noticed that my patience is running low with the kids. They infuriate me and I am scared of my own reactions. It's not that they do anything awful, but they can be so frustrating at times. I want to be a loving parent, not an angry one. Do other parents feel this way, and what do you recommend for me?"
This is an excellent question. You want to be a good father and you have a vision of what that entails -- a caring, pleasant person with whom your children want to spend time. As your children grow, you want to forge a relationship with your children that they will look back upon and cherish.
You are honest enough to realize that your reactions are not always appropriate to that vision. But those kids can be difficult at times. What options are there for you?
The first step is to realize that you have a choice. People often claim, "Those kids got me so angry." "Would you believe what my son did? I just had to explode." As annoying as a behavior may be, you still have the choice whether to react in anger or not. If you do not make concerted attempts to defuse your anger, it may be your automatic reaction, but you can develop inner control to stay calm. Remind yourself that whatever your kids do, their behaviors are not major enough to unsettle you.
We need to become aware of these inner triggers and work on diffusing them.
How we react is only partially based on the behavior itself; it is mostly based on our emotional state and on the negative inner messages the behavior triggers. We need to become aware of these inner reactions, and work on diffusing them.
A child fails a test. The parent is annoyed and berates the child for not studying harder or not taking school more seriously. What triggered the anger is not the test grade; it is the messages the father is sending himself. "My son will never get into college if he does not buckle down." Or "This is embarrassing to have a son who is a failure," or even "If he cared about me he would make sure to make me proud." There may be a other underlying, subconscious messages as well. "I am powerless to help my son succeed in school."
What can this father do instead? He can recognize that this failed test is triggering all sorts of inner reactions and address them. An inner dialog is very helpful. "Let's stay calm, and not overreact. This is just one exam. This is not indicative of my son's academic future. My son is not intentionally trying to embarrass me. Let me focus instead on my son's feelings and how to help him succeed in school."
If we can learn to defuse our inner reaction, then our outer reaction will be more appropriate. Rethinking a situation where you got upset can provide clues for your inner reactions. Getting to know yourself better can help you anticipate which situations will try your patience.
Here are a few common inner reactions:
Expectations: "I expect my kids to sit quietly when there is company."
Joey quit Little League, and he and his dad got into a major argument. Dad would do well to look at life through Joey's eyes. Joey might not be following Dad's dream, but following his own dream of exploring electronics instead.
Inconvenience: "All I want to do right now is sit and have a cup of coffee, and they want me to play ball."
Rich sits down to read the paper and Jason keeps coming over to show him his drawings. Rich's tolerance wears thin. If he would block off time and accept the fact that this is quality time with son, he will maintain a better frame of mind.
Embarrassment: "When the kids act like that it reflects poorly on me."
Jeff's kids were getting restless in a long shopping trip. Jeff felt like spanking those little brats when he realized that he was overacting due to the fact that he was embarrassed to be walking with whining kids. If he focuses on accepting that kids will whine and that does not reflect so poorly on him as a parent, he will not get so annoyed. (Ironically it is more embarrassing to be seen as an out-of-control parent.)
Concern: "What will become of this kid if he acts this way?"
Steve gets in trouble for fighting in kindergarten. His behavior needs to be guided, but if Dad overreacts, it is probably out of fear. He may be projecting that Steve will grow up to be a social misfit.
Pride: "No kid of mine will talk to me like that and get away with it."
Sam ignores his father. Dad is insulted, but then he realizes that Sam is not deliberately ignoring him. He is focused on his game, and oblivious to his surrounding. He needs to be taught to hear his father call, but that message can best be taught by a father who is not irate.
Are your children's infringements major enough for you to endanger your relationship with them?
Once we identify our inner reactions, we can work on adjusting them. Kids don't usually do things just to get us mad. They may not pay enough attention to our feelings. They may act impetuously and impinge on our time. But focusing on a positive relationship is a long term investment in our future. Assess how big your children's infringements are and whether those behaviors are major enough for you to endanger your relationship with them. In most cases you will realize that each small annoyance is worth overlooking or calmly disciplining, in view of the greater goal of providing your children with a loving, emotionally supportive father.
Occasionally, anger is an appropriate reaction to educate our children as to the severity of their actions. But if the parent is out of control, it is difficult for him to modulate his anger. In addition, it is difficult to be angry and loving at the same time. You can choose how you wish to present yourself to your children.
Lowering of one's stress level is crucial to keeping calm with your children. We live in stressful times, and someone is much more likely to overreact when under stress. Learning to de-stress is a necessary component of positive parenting. A person under stress can made great efforts not to explode at his children despite his stress level, but learning how to maintain an inner calm is very helpful in many areas of life, including parenting.
Keep alive your vision of yourself as a loving father. Ask yourself if you are living up to that vision, and be willing to work on adjusting your reactions in order to be a father that will create a warm secure childhood for his children. You will see that you can let the little annoyances go when you realize that most things are not important enough to cause you to endanger your relationship with your precious charges. Best of luck to you as you focus on making the efforts to be the best dad you can be.