There are thousands of resources on parenting. We see them passed around Facebook, read about them at the doctors’ office, and are inundated with advice in newspapers, magazines, and throughout the media. Much of this information is helpful but often packed in a pretty basket of aromatic potpourri. The ultimate message – parenting is a breeze if you follow these easy steps.
When you’re not pulling your hair out or going grey you may actually find the tasks accomplishable – “Why yes, I did give my kid a compliment today”, followed by a well-affirmed pat on the back.
Truth is, parenting is often dirty work. After all, potpourri is found on the back of toilets.
As a family therapist in Austin I have worked with many parents, caregivers, and families caught in a trap of frustration that often lead to the following image, which we will use to.. “Doh! You little **!!”
Part 1: Don’t hit your kids
Almost every parent I have worked with will say the following, “I would never hit my kid”. Yet, almost every client I see reports some memory of experiencing physical discipline or processes their regrets thereof. The two don’t correlate, as our definition of physical discipline is highly diverse.
Some cases are outright physical abuse, when other incidents occur during the parents “time of weakness”. In addition, many children experience the lingering threat of physical punishment through the use of posturing meant to send the message: “If you don’t behave, you are going to get hurt”.
This is both fact and opinion, which I will state unabashedly:
There is no excuse for hitting your child, using physical discipline, or threatening the use of violence to force a child into submission in an attempt to obtain compliance. Ever. Frustrated as you may be, the destructive long-term effects on the child and your relationship far outweigh the immediate result you seek.
It is true that the use of physical force often result in an immediate behavioral change in the child. However, seldom do these changes hold any long-term effects. In this case, the child may quickly comply, which makes the parent feel the choice to raise a hand worked.
This type of fear-based parenting often freezes the child into submission. If we look at it through the lens of a trauma survivor, individuals actually have 3 choices: Fight, Flight or Freeze.
In most cases, after you have chased your child around and exhausted their fight/flight response, they are only left with freeze as an option for survival. After all, even possums play dead. In fact, although the phrase “playing possum” has become part of our cultural narrative; possums have little control over their situation and actually pass out due to a high level of fear.
The amount of children caught in this trap is staggering. This is highly evident in our culture and a well-hidden reality, as families have learned to shield themselves from anyone else outside their system. These issue become personal, private, and highly secretive.
In reality, the romance of the nuclear style Leave-It-To-Beaver type family is old and outdated (and may never have existed in the first place). Things are far more complex. Pleasantville taught us that through the narrative of unbalanced gender roles.
The family as we know it today is the second most violent institution behind the military in times of war. (re-read previous line for dramatic affect.) This has always been a scary truth for me to stomach. As noted by the CDC, there are countless resources that support this fact and hundreds of thousands of survivors to tell their story.
As this information digests, it is my recommendation not to fall into the trap of regret. There is a fine line between labeling yourself as an abuser and feeling self-righteous about the difficult choice of resorting to violence to teach your kids a lesson.
We have all had that moment in a public place when a child (not ours) was misbehaving when the parent grabs her or him deep in the arm, and through grinned teeth, demand respect and/or an apology. Awkward.
Although these situations occur often, it is usually the parents ill-informed understanding of child development that lead to their frustration as they often expect a young child to act like an adult. Perhaps they are motivated by their own embarrassment of their child and want to send the message that the situation is under control. Either way, both loose as the child and parent suffer.
Violence does not solve violence. We don’t put fires out with fire, so why try here.
Striking a child in any way and for any reason is not worth it. This does not have to be you. My experience as a family therapist has led me to believe that there are far better alternatives to discipline our children. I have witnessed many families navigate this issue. Through these efforts, it only feeds my hope that there are quicker and safer solutions to behavioral concerns and challenges.
Next time you find yourself in a jam, burnt-out, frustrated, out of ideas, or healing from it all – call a therapist.
We are here to help you.
Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3…