The other day me and my three-year-old were fighting over a juice box. He wanted juice and he’d already had enough that day. So he was melting down and screaming at me and I was getting aggravated. But then he threw a punch and it hit me right in the nuts. It wasn’t that hard or anything, but it was hard enough to hurt, and I was so surprised and angry that I grabbed him by the shoulders really hard and yelled “No!” Then I grabbed his arm and led him to the timeout step and plunked him down there. I wasn’t nice about it.
I think he was shaken by the whole thing, and after a minute I cooled off and felt really bad about how rough I’d been with him. I mean, I didn’t bruise him or hit him or anything, and I would never do that. I don’t spank or swat him. I hardly even yell at him. But I just grabbed him rougher than I should have when I was upset. I’m not proud of any of this and it worries me. Am I messing up as a dad? Is there anything I can do to make this better?
—Too Rough in Raleigh
So, you grabbed your kid in anger and surprise? Well, the good news is that you didn’t grab him out of simple cruelty, or to inflict pain and instill fear. Instead, you showed him an unvarnished emotional response.
Does that make the situation better? Not particularly. We aren’t supposed to hurt or scare our kids. The ultimate goal is to not be rough with your kid in any context. But it’s important to start with some reassurance. You are not broken. You’re not a bad person. Heck, you’re not even a bad father. After all, you’re asking the question about making it better, and that’s something good fathers do.
So, let’s discuss making it better. Thankfully, there are a couple of actions you can take to turn things around, starting with forgiveness.
We’re going to use ‘forgiveness’ in a couple of different ways. First off, you’re going to forgive yourself. You made a mistake, and you’re working to change it. Cut yourself a bit of slack, shed the guilt, resolve to make a change, and move on. If you don’t forgive yourself, that guilt and worry can calcify into depression and anxiety, which makes it harder to manage your emotions in difficult situations — a.k.a. your child’s entire third year, probably. Positive self-regard will be your friend here. Also, solid self-esteem and self-assurance is a good look for you. Your son will pick up on it.
He’ll also pick up on humility. Which is to say, you need to have some. Again, we’re talking about forgiveness here. Once you’ve forgiven yourself, you need to seek forgiveness from your son.
There a lot of parents who’ll blanch at the thought of apologizing and asking forgiveness from their child. They will see the act as beneath their station as a parent and adult. These parents are wrong. Apologizing and asking forgiveness of a child is a radical act. Not only does it model the value of humility and humbleness, seeking forgiveness shows a kid that there is recovery from mistakes. A genuine apology helps repair broken relationships, and in all honesty, your relationship with your son could probably use a little repair.
This act of apology doesn’t have to be extravagant. Just tell him that you were surprised and hurt, but you made a bad choice. Tell him that you are sorry and you didn’t mean to hurt or scare him and that you’re going to do your best to make better choices in the future. Then, move on and do something fun you both enjoy.
Patching things up with your son is great and all, but it’s only the short-term solution. The next step is to address your own behavior. This is, as you’d imagine, a long-term project. It may require consideration for your entire life. That’s just the way things are. Habits are hard to break, particularly if they’re caught up in strong emotional responses. So you’ll need to be able to celebrate incremental and manageable change.
Something that will help you out immensely will be to avoid what you called power struggles. There are a couple of ways to do this. One is to build and reinforce specific, consistent, and reasonable boundaries related to your child’s behavior. Having boundaries will help both you and your kid understand when it’s a reasonable time to make a big deal out of a behavioral issue. But importantly, these boundaries shouldn’t be arbitrary. They should be linked to values that are important to your family and household.
In the example you gave, you mentioned the power struggle was over juice. Here’s a question: Was it really that important? Why? Having well-defined and consistent boundaries connected to values would help you answer this question both for yourself and your kid. It helps you figure out, in essence, which hills are really worth dying on. Was another juice really going to run counter to your values?
Think of it this way. Maybe one of your big family values is self-control and prudent consumption. Fine. Then there should be a consistently enforced and communicated boundary that states only two juices a day are allowed in order to promote self-control. So your kid asks for juice number three, you remind him why he can’t have it in a calm and collected way, and then you walk away. No need to go back and forth. The boundary has been reinforced, the value has been promoted and the question has been answered.
If you don’t already have a juice boundary, then you have no reason to not give the kid another juice. Your reason is, essentially, because I said so. Suddenly the whole thing has become personal. Your kid thinks you’re just being mean, or they feel unsettled because the rules aren’t clear. Shit gets ramped up, and suddenly, you have your big mitts on your 3-year-old’s shoulders.
Even with well-defined boundaries, it’s possible — nay, even likely — that your child is going to piss you off. Three-year-olds, after all, have a legendary capacity to be infuriating. Because of that, you need to work on developing a pause button. You need to recognize you’re getting hot, and then stop interacting, literally, like hitting a pause button.
Once you stop, you can do a couple of things to change the situation: You can take some deep, calming breaths, or you can physically remove yourself from the situation if your child is in a safe place. The third option is capitulation — simply give in. And if you feel the need to save face, you use this simple phrase: “I’ve rethought my position.”
A couple things happen when you tell your kid you’ve rethought your position. First, you’re modeling flexibility, which is a good trait for any kid to pick up. Second, you are acknowledging that it’s alright for people to change their minds in the face of rational evidence that what they’re doing currently isn’t working — also an incredible lesson.
These tactics will allow you to derail the anger train so you never get to the point of placing your hands of your kid, even if he does happen to hit you in the balls. And I say this as a father of two boys who have terrific aim when it comes to crotch shots.
You’re not going to be perfect overnight. But with some forgiveness, thoughtful boundaries, and tactical maneuvers, you’ll be well on your way. Good luck.
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