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Parental Angry Outbursts at Children

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question:
I'm a single dad in a serious dating relationship with a woman who is wonderful in many ways, but I'm very troubled by her explosive temper. It seems to come out of the blue, sometimes aimed at me but often at her own six-year-old child, which disturbs me even more. She doesn't hit her daughter, but she yells in a way that truly seems to frighten the girl. Witnessing this is upsetting for my daughter too. I'm far from perfect and need to look at how my own behavior might trigger my friend's anger, but it feels like much of her anger is about something that goes way back in her life. I would love to make this relationship work, but I can't expose my daughter (or myself, really) to these kinds of unpredictable outbursts. Can an adult change a pattern like this? How can I address this?

Answer:
At a time when your friend is not angry, sit down for a heart-to-heart talk about this behavior. Tell her that you care deeply about her and want to make this relationship work, but that her angry outbursts are a serious barrier. Tell her you would like to understand what it's like for her when she becomes so angry. Does she recognize this as an ongoing pattern in her own behavior? Does she see it as a problem? Is this how her parents handled anger? And, if so, how did she feel about it? How does she think her explosive anger affects her daughter?

If your friend does not see the behavior as a problem, then it may be time for you to move on; a necessary first step toward changing such behavior is recognizing the need to change. If she does show some insight and has a desire to change, encourage her to seek psychological counseling. A qualified therapist should be able to help her learn to recognize the early signs of anger and develop a more positive way of coping.

The therapist also can focus more broadly on the parent-child relationship with an emphasis on more effective, constructive ways to guide and encourage her daughter. And since you seem to have a strong commitment to your relationship with her, it might be wise to attend some counseling sessions together so you can work together on ways to communicate effectively, parent together, and resolve conflicts when they arise.

It also is possible that your friend's behavior is a symptom of depression, anxiety or some other mental health problem that could be alleviated by medical treatment. A good therapist can help determine if medical intervention is needed and can recommend a qualified psychiatrist in your community. (Even if medication is recommended, counseling probably will be an important part of the plan to change these longstanding behaviors.)

Whatever happens, your friend is fortunate that you are willing to support and encourage her to learn better ways to handle her emotions--and to look at your own role in these difficult interactions. Your daughter also is fortunate you are looking out for her best interests while considering the kind of family you want to build in the future.

Also, it is important to attend to your daughter's own uneasiness about being left alone. One of our most important tasks as parents is to give our young children a feeling of security. One way to do that is to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to keep them safe.

Recognizing that a regular exercise regimen is important to you, I suggest you consider some alternatives that would take your daughter's comfort and safety into account. For example, how about biking or skating outdoors with your daughter on the weekends--or swimming with her at a local Y or health club? (This would serve the added purpose of engaging her in physical activity, a key to health and wellbeing for people of all ages.)

Or perhaps a neighborhood teenager could care for your daughter on Sunday evenings while you take your 30-minute run. Or you could arrange a play date for your daughter at the home of another child in the neighborhood while you run, then reciprocate at another time to give those parents a break. Another option would be to use a treadmill or mini-trampoline to exercise at home after your daughter's bedtime. Whatever alternative you choose, know that this is in your own self-interest as well as your daughter's. If anything happened to your daughter while left alone at your house, you would never forgive yourself. More positively stated, by keeping her safe and respecting her feelings, you are laying the foundation for a strong, positive relationship as she matures.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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