Gut Check: Shame and Anger: The Emotional Handcuffs of Parenting
One of the unaddressed elements of children’s behavior is the pain that families go through, knowing that others are judging them. Because the fact is, they are being judged. When parents have to go to school constantly because of their kid’s outbursts, when they get in conflicts with the neighbors because of the kid’s behavior, when they’re at the supermarket and the kid throws a temper tantrum, or they’re at the mall with their adolescent child and he raises his voice or gives his parents backtalk, it’s completely humiliating. Parents feel ashamed of themselves and sense that the cold, unforgiving eyes of the world are upon them, casting judgment on their parenting skills.
“The worst mistake parents make is giving power to public or family criticism over their decision-making about their child.”
It’s natural for parents to get angry at the child when behavior problems are ongoing, but often that anger is triggered by the shame parents feel regarding what other people think about how they parent. If the kid is acting this badly, they reason that it must be a direct reflection on them. So parents feel twice the pain—not only the pain of knowing their child is not functioning well, but the pain of being seen as a “bad parent.”
The sad thing is, parents are so focused on their children doing well and keeping out of trouble that they rarely address the fact that the behavior problem is embarrassing for them and they’re having a hard time with it. I think it’s important for parents to acknowledge that to themselves, and it’s important for them to know where to turn to get help without being judged.
Grandparents and Extended Family Members Are Not Therapists
With many kids who act out, the behavior is a long-standing pattern, and the families of the parents have long ago registered their vote on what the problem is. They’ll say everything from "You’re too harsh" to "You’re too weak." "You’re too permissive" to "You’re too strict." "You don’t listen to him." "You need to give him more ‘structure.’" Or, parents hear this: “Gee, he doesn’t do that at my house.” That’s a common refrain from grandparents that immediately makes the parents feel as if there’s something wrong with them. Well-meaning family members say this without understanding that the kid is being manipulative to his parents. He’s not acting out at their house because the grandparents most likely don’t place any demands upon him to meet responsibilities. He’s usually not doing his homework or his chores at their house. So there’s no reason for him to be in a power struggle at their house because the grandparents are not forcing him to do things that are difficult for him. Kids get aggressive and have outbursts when you ask them to do things that are difficult for them or that they don’t want to do. Instead of talking about it, they use power games. When you ask your family for advice, you’re asking them to be child behavior specialists, and they’re not. When you are told that your child “doesn’t do that at our house,” you feel ashamed and angry. And it can negatively impact your relationship with your own family.
I think it is unhealthy for a parent to go to their extended family, unless they have a family that has demonstrated that they are understanding and that they can be helpful with effective responses to behavior. Grandparents, aunts and uncles may have a lot of suggestions that are very well-intentioned, but they may not be effective in helping the parent meet the goal they have for that child. So if your problem is that he won’t do his homework, and you’ve been to the school, and you accept that this level of homework is appropriate for his abilities, having the grandparent telling you the school is just giving him too much homework is not the solution. It’s especially not helpful if they say this to your child. I’ve seen many cases where other family members disagree with the parents’ approach and talk about it with the children, and it makes the problem worse.
School: Leave Your Emotions in the Parking Lot
When parents are struggling to manage behavioral problems at school and their own embarrassment around those problems, they tend to get angry at teachers and school administrators. It’s completely natural. The problem is that getting angry at all those parties doesn’t help change the situation. So if the school calls you up consistently for problems, it doesn’t help to fight with the school. You may want to, but it doesn’t help.
It’s also important to know where the school can help you and where they can’t. The school is not the best source of objective feedback on your child and on your parenting skills because, unfortunately, well-meaning educators and school administrators can either purposely or by innuendo hold the parent responsible for the child’s behavior. That’s going to feel like blame when you are struggling with your child’s problem, and it will only add more shame to what you are already experiencing. Seek support elsewhere when you feel the school staff isn’t being helpful.
Don’t Let Embarrassment Cloud Your Thinking
Because of their embarrassment and shame, I think parents tend to make errors in judgment, and they respond ineffectively to their kids. One of the things that happens is that parents compare their insides to other people’s outsides. In their gut they feel humiliated, embarrassed, and have a lot of self-doubt. What am I doing wrong? They’re afraid for their child. They sit in meetings at the school and assume that the guidance counselor’s kids are perfect, the principal’s kids are perfect and the teacher’s kids are perfect. Instead of saying, “These people probably have kids with problems too.” They compare their worst point with some fantasy they have about other families. Here’s the straight truth: Every family has problems. Many of them have to do with kids. Some of them have to do with integrity of the adults. Some of them have to do with inappropriate behavior by the adults. Some of them have to do with finances. Some of them have to do with parental conflicts. Some of them have to do with kids’ physical difficulties. But every family’s got problems. I think that the worst mistake parents make is giving that kind of criticism and feedback power over their decision-making about their child. Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. You’ll always come up short.
If parents are uncertain about how to handle their kid’s behavior problems, they shouldn’t try to “keep it in the family.” Nor should they rely on the school to fix problems they are not equipped to solve. They should get help outside of the family and the school. Remember that no matter how embarrassed, alone and angry you feel, there may be a lot of things that you can do differently with your child. Even if the behavior problems have been going on for years. Doing things differently may have a better outcome. I know. I see it happen in families every day. The key is getting objective feedback. You need somebody who’s able to say, “You’re doing the right thing. Keep it up.” Or “What you’re doing may not be the most effective response. Have you thought of this?”
A Word about Hopelessness
I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of families in thirty years as a behavioral therapist. Many of whom had tried everything with their child—from getting advice from family to getting help through therapy—and nothing had been effective in turning around the problems. After years of being emotionally blackmailed by their kids, feeling held hostage by the problem, and feeling that the system has let them down, parents can feel powerless, and when they feel powerless, they lose hope. Hopelessness is the most dangerous emotion of all for parents because it breeds skepticism and slams the door on change.
If this is your situation, the message I have for you is that you have to keep trying, because your child is your greatest love and creation. If he’s not doing well, you need to try something different. If you’re going to somebody’s office and not getting help, go to another resource, or, better yet, bring the training into your home where the behavior problems are happening. Doing this could be the one different thing that opens the door to change in your child.