Ask the Expert: My husband has a very short fuse with kids
The first step in overcoming an angry response is learning to ‘pause’ in the heat of a row. Photograph: Getty Images
Q My husband can get so angry with the children sometimes, especially when he is stressed and frustrated. He is otherwise a caring, involved dad and I don’t doubt that he loves our children. However, when they misbehave he can have a short fuse and ends up shouting and threatening them.
It has never come to violence but he has dragged our six-year-old son across the floor to put him on a time out when he was really bold.
While my husband is sometimes defensive about his behaviour after the event, frequently he is remorseful and admits he has a temper problem. He came from a very volatile household growing up and his own mother always shouted at him.
Also, a lot of the problems are due to our six year old, who can be really challenging. I tend to give in or work around him but my husband holds his ground, which can end up in a stand-up row.
What way should we approach the problems?
A Parenting can be very stressful and most parents are at times pushed to the pin of their collar. This is especially the case when dealing with tantrums and behaviour problems, when feelings are high and anger is experienced by both parent and child. At these times, the temptation is to resort to shouting, coercion and physical discipline to get children to behave.
However understandable these strategies are, they are also counter-productive and only model to the child a negative way of resolving conflict as well as being damaging to the child’s self-esteem and the parent-child relationship.
Making a decision to respond calmly
Whatever anger is being experienced, the key to good parenting is to learn to respond calmly and positively, even when you are disciplining a child.
It is very helpful that your husband admits that anger is a problem and that you are able to talk about this together. You want to find a way of “holding your ground” with your son that does not involve you resorting to arguing or shouting. Make a decision together that you will support one another to use positive strategies (such as those below) in overcoming behaviour problems.
Learning to pause
The first step in overcoming an angry response is learning to “pause” in the heat of a row. Rather than reacting, you want to take a step back so you can think calmly how to respond.
Sometimes taking a physical step back can be helpful – “I’m too angry to deal with this at the moment, we will deal with it later” – or it can be a case of keeping your voice down and managing your feelings in the moment.
Separating feelings from actions
Feelings of anger are normal and happen all the time, but feeling angry does not mean you have to react angrily. It is understandable that you might become frustrated but you don’t have to shout or lose your temper.
By naming your own feelings and then not acting on them, you model to your children how they can manage their feelings. It is acceptable for your child to be frustrated when a rule is imposed but it is not acceptable for him to hit out or become aggressive.
You can be sympathetic to your son’s feelings but still insist that he behaves appropriately: “I know you are annoyed, but let’s calm down now and we can talk”; “I know you are frustrated but take a break now.” Naming feelings in an empathic way helps children understand and manage them.
Effective behaviour management
In my experience, the main reason parents get angry when dealing with problem behaviour is that they are not sure how to enforce rules and resort to shouting as a means of coercing children to behave.
Frequently, parents labour under the false idea that discipline is best-delivered angrily when the reverse is, in fact, true.
Effective behaviour-management centres on having a small number of clear rules with your children (eg being respectful) and effective consequences for when rules are broken (no TV until you ask politely).
Thinking up good consequences that work for an individual child is always a challenge but whatever you use, they work best when offered as a choice and never used coercively. As you have discovered, it is extremely counter-productive to “drag” your son to a time out.
A consequence such as time out will work only with some degree of cooperation – “Unless you calm down now you will have to take a time out” – and only enforced by using a back-up consequence that the parent can carry out calmly – “Either you take a time out now, or you will miss your TV programme tonight.”
A key discipline mantra for parents is to use good consequences and not anger to discipline their children.
Thinking through a good behavioural system takes time and effort to plan and put into action.
It is important to plan in detail how you will respond to challenging situations and to think through each “what if” situation to ensure you have a calm response ready. In addition, it is important to think how you can prevent problems in the first place.
Think how you can avoid flashpoints for your son by employing good routines. For example, you may notice he is tired in the evenings (which can fuel angry exchanges) and establish a more relaxing routine accordingly. Or ensure you have more time in the morning to avoid too much pressure on the way to school.
Sit down with your husband and discuss how you can prevent problems arising in the first place.
Managing behaviour problems in a calm, effective way takes a lot of hard work and effort. Often the best way to do this is to attend an evidence-based parenting course where you will be supported to implement positive strategies over a period of time.
In addition, your husband may be interested in attending a stress-management course or counselling to manage his own specific anger issues. Contact your local primary care team or family resource centre to see what help might be available.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker, psychotherapist and director of the Parents Plus charity. His new book, Parenting Teenagers, (€7.99) is now out. See solutiontalk.ie