Not long ago, I received an email asking for some advice...
My brother and sister-in-law are really struggling with my 3-year-old nephew, Buddy. Donna generally deals with her son by screaming and yelling at him. This in turn makes him scream and yell back. It's a vicious cycle really. Her tolerance level for him has reduced so significantly, it seems Buddy can't do anything without being yelled at. Things are getting so bad, my family does not want to go out to dinner or on vacation with them because it always turns into an embarrassing yelling match between Donna and a 3-year-old.
It feels like Donna is always in a bad mood and it is causing stress in their marriage. My brother is begging me to talk to her because Donna and I have been best friends for years, even before she and my brother started dating. He thinks she will take it to heart if she hears it from me. Hank is so good with the kids, almost too good. I think he is more slack because he tries to make up for Donna's behaviour. He has tried talking to her several times but they always end up in a fight. She changes her attitude for a few days, but always returns to the same behavior.
I am concerned because I imagine parents do not like getting advice from someone who does not have kids, lol. I want to talk to her about it because I am very concerned that if things don't change soon, it will ruin their marriage and her relationship with her son. She doesn't seem to get it when her husband talks to her about it. Anyway I guess I am asking for advice. I don't really know where to start or what to say to her that won't cause a fight between us. I am also wondering if you can recommend any books or other materials that could help her.
It may sound like it from what I have written, but Donna is not a monster. I truly believe she loves her son, she just doesn't know how to deal with her own emotions and ends up taking it out on him. Buddy has wicked freakouts, kicking screaming, hitting and biting and she really just doesn't know how to deal beyond screaming and yelling at him. I want to help her, I think she is asking for help, she just doesn't know what to do anymore. I know you are writing a book on the same topic and am hoping you can help me help her :)
*all names changed
Here is part one of my reply...
There are a number of things I can share with you that may be of help for your family. Let me start by helping you (and Hank) understand what Donna is experiencing and what her emotional needs are. Then, I'll share some specific tips that just apply to the husband/wife relationship and how Hank can really help Donna in practical terms.
1. First and foremost, Donna needs to know that she is not alone. The biggest part of the problem is that we are all so ashamed of our anger that we don't talk about it, therefore we all think we're alone. She needs to know that other moms have kids who are "spirited," that other moms feel like their kids live to push their buttons, that other moms don't know what to do or how to control their kids, and that other moms resort to swearing, screaming and more. Donna will not be free to even acknowledge that there is a problem until she experiences the freedom of knowing that she's not the only one.
2. Angry moms live in terror that they are being judged and that eventually someone is going to try to take their children away. It is imperative that Donna feel reassured that you and Hank really believe she is the best mom for her children and that you don't think she should have her children taken away. You say that she seems unhappy - that is because she hates herself, hates who she's become, and hates that she seems powerless to change. Donna will not be able to receive advice from anyone who she feels is judging her, as her instinct will be self-preservation.
3. What she really needs is prayer, love, and understanding. While it may feel counter-intuitive to "sit back and do nothing," constantly trying to "do something" can actually escalate the problem. Sometimes it's good to step back and do the work through prayer. Praying accomplishes two things: as you and and pray for Donna's temper and Buddy's behavior, God will work in their hearts; and praying will soften your hearts towards Donna and Buddy, giving you greater compassion and understanding.
4. She is not really angry, but feels alone and overwhelmed. When we, as mothers, find ourselves "losing it" on our kids repeatedly we feel out-of-control and as if our kids are out-of-control.
What can often happen in families is that, because dad goes to work and leaves the parenting stuff up to mom, he also leaves the parenting to her once he's home. It's a huge compliment and an act of trust, really, as he feels that she is good at this job and she knows what she's doing. Two unfortunate issues arise when this happnes. First, mom begins to resent dad because she doesn't feel he is helping with discipline (which he is only doing because he thinks she's better at it). As mom's resentment grows, so does her general frustration and anger. Eventually, dad's confidence morphs into disengagement.
His thinking begins to shift from, "She can do it!" to "Why can't she do it?" And his frustration grows with the observation that it would seem she can't do it, and she puts demands on him to help. At this point, some men begin to feel a sense of entitlement and resentment. "I work hard and deserve to rest when I get home. Why should I have to deal with this kid's behavior? It's her problem."
Please don't get me wrong! I am in no way saying that mom's anger is dad's fault. And I certainly cannot say for certain that this is what is happening with Donna and Hank. But while dad cannot do anything to help (or force) mom to change her hollerin' ways, he can take a good look at his own behavior to see if he is, in any way, contributing to the problem. He can't change her, but he can change himself!
The rest of my message will be words just for Hank and how he can help Donna and Buddy.
to be continued...