Dads, I’m sure this is a familiar scene.
You get home from work, exhausted from a long day. As soon as you walk through the door you hear your baby wailing or your toddler screaming, or maybe another argument between your teen and your spouse. Eyes turn towards you and your wife immediately asks/tells you to step in, pick up the baby, play with your toddler, talk with your teen or take out the garbage. You haven’t even put down the car keys and your attention is being demanded. You’re frustrated and you wind up saying something you don’t mean, or worse, yelling things you don’t mean.
Losing your temper is completely normal as a parent, but when you lose it you have to be especially careful because your words are so powerful, they can actually make or break your child. Whatever you tell your child, she internalizes. Trust me. I know this because I hear your children talk about themselves every time they come into my office. If she knows you love her, she feels loved. If she thinks you only criticize her, she criticizes herself. If you add a raised voice on top of this – she’ll be frightened of you. She’ll walk on eggshells around you, worried that if she says or does something “wrong”, she’ll get yelled at. Ultimately, she won’t feel safe around you.
This may be a brand new realization for you – and you’re probably ashamed remembering some of the things you’ve said or done in anger. Believe it or not, your kids are still pro-you. And so am I. My goal here is to get you to understand what your child is taking from your words (and your anger) on a daily basis – and how to turn it around.
I’m going to give you some examples of things you might say to your child and then translate them into what your child then believes about themselves.
When what your child hears repeatedly is POSITIVE:
“You’re so kind with others. That’s amazing!”
Translation: My dad believes in me! He thinks I’m a good, kind person.
“You’re smart and you know how to keep going when it’s hard. I’m proud of you.”
Translation: I bet I can do anything that I put my mind to! No matter what, I know my Dad is proud of me.
“I’m always here for you. I love you so much!”
Translation: I deserve love! I don’t need to prove myself to anyone to know that I’m special and wanted.
When what your child hears repeatedly is NEGATIVE/said in ANGER:
“I can’t deal with you right now.”
Translation: I don’t want to annoy Dad. I hope he still likes me.
“You’re still working on that math problem? It’s really not that hard.”
Translation: He’s right, I should have figured this out by now. I’m stupid.
*Anything with a raised voice and/or expletives*
Translation: This is all my fault. I don’t know why Daddy gets so angry with me.
This is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Your words and your tone are POWERFUL. You can build your child up with positive affirmation, or you can tear your child down with abusive language or harsh words.
So, how do you fix the damage done from yelling or getting angry? I’ve got some suggestions.
Own the Guilt.
One of the hardest things for a parent to do is admit that you are hurting your children. It’s easier to simply believe that your words didn’t cut as deeply as they did. This is the worst thing you can do. Own up to hurting your child deeply. If you pretend that your words didn’t hurt that badly, your children will feel that you aren’t sincere and that you don’t care about their feelings.
Ask for forgiveness.
It is important to tell your child that you are sorry for what you did, but don’t stop there. Ask him to forgive you for making him feel so sad or bad about himself. If you don’t acknowledge how your behavior made him feel, he won’t believe your apology. Tell him that you said something that you didn’t mean because you were angry, not because you believe it.
Don’t be vague.
When you say something mean, follow up with, “Please forgive me for calling you _____.” Or whatever you said. Being specific is important to a child because it lets him know that you really understand how wrong you were and how much you hurt him.
Most children don’t want to forgive right away because they’re hurt. If your child tells you he doesn’t want to accept your apology, don’t get angry, ask him again one week later. It is important to give your child time to get over the offense you committed.
If the hurt was really bad and occurred over several years, your child will take longer to forgive you. This stems from the fact that he doesn’t know if he can trust you to be sincere. He wants to know he can trust you not to hurt him again if he forgives you.
Tell him you will work on change.
Make a verbal commitment to your child to work hard on changing the way you speak. If you yell, tell her that you will work hard on stopping the yelling. If you call names, swear, whatever, be specific about what you intend to change and tell this to your child.
Also, ask your child to let you know if you are slipping. Keeping your “problem” out in the open helps diffuse the power that it has over your children to hurt them. Things kept in secret feel bigger.
Ask for adult help and accountability.
If you struggle with a lot of anger that doesn’t go away, get help. Find a counselor and do the work necessary to get your anger under control.
When parental anger spills onto children, it causes deep hurts that will affect their self-esteem, sense of value and how much they feel loved. Ultimately, your uncontrolled anger will have long-lasting effects on your children, and there is absolutely no reason for this—ever.
Your job as a good Dad is to keep your issues on your shoulders and not let them spill over onto your kids. It’s tough, but you can do it. You just might need a little help.
If you don’t feel that your level of anger warrants professional help, then talk openly with a friend about it. Tell them that you would like to be accountable to them regarding how well you are doing getting it under control.
You can’t undo the past. What you’ve said is done. But you can choose how you respond to what you’ve said or done. So, be encouraged.
Ask for forgiveness. Promise to do better. Get some help.
You’ve got this, Dad.