‘Sometimes I look at my kid’s behavior and think, where did I go wrong?’
Derek M., a resident of Harrison and a dedicated father of two, is distraught over his 4-year-old son’s epic temper tantrums and public meltdowns. When his son’s wants aren’t met, he screams, kicks, falls to the floor, and has on several occasions, hits him. Now Derek fears that his 2-year-old daughter is starting to emulate her brother’s bullying behavior.
Like many dads in his community, Derek works long hours – plus a commute to his offices in New York City – and looks forward to family time on the weekends. He envisioned playing soccer, hosting cookouts, celebrating holidays; that all seems like a lost dream now. When did parenting become so difficult?
A generation ago it would have been preposterous to think children could get away with bullying their fathers. “Wait until your father gets home,” the battle cry of overwrought mothers, struck terror in the hearts of misbehaving youth.
Today, there is a major backlash against authoritarian fathering. Fathers are less likely to use corporal punishment or harshly discipline their children. In fact, fathers who were raised by emotionally abusive or contemptuous fathers, report that they never want to subject their own children to the trauma that they experienced as children.
And so, fathers like Derek find themselves at a crossroads: Can they put firm limits on their kids without morphing into the tyrant father of yesteryear? Is there a healthy balance between being a pushover or a terrifying oppressor?
Fathers who let their kids push them around are nearly always kind-hearted and loving. They want to be the best dad for their kids. The problem is that they lack the tools to manage challenging parenting moments. Commonly, fathers visit my psychotherapy office hungering for new strategies and ways to strengthen their parenting. Their dedication and determination to be better fathers is truly moving.
Before we explore interventions, let’s take a look at the fathers who are most likely to allow their kids to bully them:
1. The Guilty Dad
Fathers who spend extended time away from home tend to feel guilty about neglecting their kids. Thinking that they have limited time together, they don’t want to spend it arguing, so they overcompensate by overindulging, caving in to their demands and avoiding limit-setting. Unfortunately, as a result, their kids are entitled, not empowered.
2. The Lost Dad
Fathers who grew up in households with missing or absent fathers never had a father role. Once they become a dad, they feel adrift, have trouble making decisions, and frequently defer to their partner or children when faced with a difficult choice. For instance, they may delegate unpopular parenting tasks (homework, chores, etc.) to their partner, preferring to be the “fun parent”, creating an unhealthy imbalance in their parenting. Sensing a lack of leadership from their father, kids grow frustrated, scornful and demanding.
3. The Self-Neglecting Dad
Overworked, overscheduled and fatigued, self-neglecting dads arrive home too exhausted to play or help out with homework. Sleep deprived, repeating the same routine, day after day, leaves them feeling disconnected as they continue to put their family’s needs first while completely ignoring their own. They often abandon their hobbies, stop exercising or start overeating, symbolically trying to fill the emptiness they feel inside. Ironically, children of self-neglecting dads tend to feel neglected and undervalued. They wonder why their father is so disengaged and often turn to negative behaviors for attention.
To reboot your fathering style, try these five interventions:
1. Family Meetings
Weekly family meetings are great arenas for hashing out schedules, planning activities and establishing rules for communication. Parents frequently confront such issues at the worst times, such as late at night, early morning, or in stressful moments. Avoid trying to work out family conflicts when everyone is tired, hungry or running late. Pick a time when everyone is relaxed, rested and well fed. Family meetings strengthen relationships and provide productive opportunities to make plans and establish behavioral norms together.
2. Set Clear Limits on Behavior
Parents set the standard for family behaviors. For instance, if someone is upset, is it OK to yell, bully or curse? If you’re angry, what is an acceptable way to express it? Set the guidelines for how to navigate conflicts. Also identify behaviors that are absolutely unacceptable and discuss consequences in advance. Avoid a negative or punishing tone. Work together to decide, as a family, the best ways to resolve differences. As a result, your kids will be empowered with better tools for managing their feelings and behavior in difficult moments.
3. Schedule Quality Alone Time with Each Child
A strong emotional bond with your child is more effective than material rewards or punishments. Schedule time for each child to have individual attention. Establish a unique activity that you do together. The better attunement you have with your kid, the less bullying behavior will appear. A parent who listens is soothing and comforting to children – so during your special outings, be sure to listen more than you talk.
4. Model Behaviors You Want to See
Kids naturally emulate their parents’ behaviors; they internalize their parents’ communication style, their attitudes and their work ethic. Be sure to model behaviors that you want to see in your kids. For example, if you are guilty of yelling or bullying your kids when you’re frustrated, your child will naturally yell and bully you or other children, as well, setting the stage for social problems at school. So before you blame or complain about behavior, take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are guilty of modeling the behaviors you denounce.
5. Make Time for Yourself
An unhappy parent is always a burden for a child. When parents are self-sacrificing, burnt out or joyless, children tend blame themselves for their parents’ unhappiness. In such cases, they may take on the burden of trying to make their parent happy or bully for attention. A father who makes time for himself by engaging in fulfilling hobbies, fun social events or creative activities, has more patience, thinks clearer and provides more confident leadership. Add activities to your life that refresh and invigorate you. You could hit the gym, go to a concert, go for a hike, or reawaken a creative passion that you’re neglecting. Children delight in seeing their parents happy. You’ll also provide an excellent model for how to live a full and satisfying life.
Sean Grover, LCSW is a psychotherapist, author and speaker with 25 years of experience helping parents fend off nervous breakdowns. He is the author of When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully – and Enjoy Being a Parent Again. To contact Sean or book a parenting workshop for your school or youth center visit seang
As a father do you:
• Let your kids push you around?
• Give into your kids’ aggressive demands?
• Make excuses for your kids’ disrespectful behavior?
• Feel humiliated by your kids’ public meltdowns?