Blowing Up at Kids

When you lash out at your child, you lose a lot more than control

What parent hasn't felt the burning sensation of white-hot anger? Of being so enraged that you stop thinking about your child's feelings altogether, as well as any message you had hoped to get across? Getting angry with your child is normal, even inevitable. But losing control of that anger is destructive, both to your child and to your ability to discipline.

Matthew McKay, Ph.D., spent two years studying parental anger and its effects on children. McKay points to research showing that children of angry parents were more likely to be aggressive and distant. In adolescence, they struggled in nearly every important area of their lives: academic, social, and emotional. Some even suffered bouts of depression. And the effects spill over into adulthood as well. Growing up in an angry home often leads to difficulties with careers, relationships, and even mental health.

"If you are screaming nearly every day, it's a rare child who won't be hurt by that," says McKay. "On the other hand, conflict once a month, or even once a week, isn't necessarily harmful. It just can't be perceived as a personal attack or a physical threat."

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In other words, there's a big difference between yelling, "I'm so angry" and yelling at your child, "You've really messed up this time," or between slamming your fist on the counter and slamming your child into his chair.

One of the greatest shields against the effects of an occasional blow-up is a strong and loving relationship with your child, according to Heidi Feldman, M.D., chief of general academic pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"If you have a positive relationship with your child, and vice versa, so that your children are securely attached to you and enjoy your company, if you lose your temper from time to time, it's very different than if a parent doesn't have a good relationship," she explains. "A child can endure a lot as long as his basic needs are being met."

You don't need to mask your disapproval or disappointment either. Anger is a healthy human emotion, Feldman adds. It's appropriate to give your child honest feedback about his behavior and your reaction to it.

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