‘We shout at and smack our children: how can we stop?’

06 Feb 2018

The dilemma I have two lovely little girls aged six and three and a wonderful husband who helps a lot with childcare. I work full time and my husband works four days a week, so we’re busy, but I do have some paid help. I worry that we both have very short fuses, and our girls are exposed to a level of anger that isn’t appropriate. I want them to grow up in a calm and loving household, but we both blow up. I calm down immediately, but am full of remorse for shouting at or smacking our older girl. The younger one isn’t often naughty. My husband uses phrases like “shut up” or “go away”, which I would never say to a child. I’ve spoken to him about it and he does try, but our elder child can be very provocative. We both grew up in homes with strict parents, where we were smacked. We now struggle with the fact that our eldest is deliberately naughty and defiant. She is terribly jealous whenever the younger one gets any attention. How can we keep the atmosphere calm? We were never angry like this before we had children.

The psychologist’s reply. Brace yourself for the backlash. There’s one parenting topic guaranteed to draw gasps of disapproval, and paroxysms of judgmental rage – particularly from those Michael Gove would deem “the liberal elite” – and that’s smacking. It has also, in my lifetime, become an uncomfortable demarcation line between the haves and the have-nots in terms of what’s deemed acceptable. Patronising pity tempers our outrage when (in a stereotypical scenario) an ill-mannered mother lashes out as she trails her four children round Tesco’s. But when an educated professional, with exposure to contemporary new thinking, commits a similar act of violence, judgment levels crescendo.

There are times when knowing better can help us to act better, but we are animals after all and sadly it’s in our interactions with each other, and in particular our offspring, that that particular fact becomes very apparent. Children can provoke incredibly strong emotions, both good and bad, so I applaud your honesty and self-awareness. I’ll get no prizes for illumination when I tell you that while the impulse may be deeply ingrained, resorting to smacking is the very definition of losing a battle. All it teaches the child in question is that it’s OK for adults to react without restraint, setting in place a dysfunctional pattern of behaviour.

I find it particularly helpful to imagine what it would be like if all adults went around slapping each other when confronted with defiance. It would be mayhem. It’s surely worthy of a Monty Python-style sketch, set on a rush hour train, where those who failed to show proper respect faced a swift whack on some or other part of their anatomy. It may sound a ridiculous scenario but the way we handle children shouldn’t in principle differ from how we treat adults. They are as entitled to patience, the powers of reason and convincing evidence as any other generation. All that smacking and uncontrolled anger illustrates is a lack of self-restraint that to a child looks pretty terrifying.

Rereading your email I’m convinced you’re aware of the mixed messaging of responding with violence and the problems you are creating with your demonised eldest child. As parents we can set patterns in place that will last through generations, as is illustrated by both of your hard-wired responses.

Having children requires us not just to curb our negative impulses but also to be the best person we can strive to be. You’ve recognised that the anger in your household is a problem and I hope you realise the smacking quite simply has to stop. Scotland has already made smacking children a criminal act. Whether you’re busy or not, there’s no excuse for failing to evaluate how you are raising your kids. If you and your husband are struggling to temper your frustrations then you need professional help to equip you with the requisite tools. The good news is there are professional people who can really help you. There are plenty of organisations skilled in such counselling and I’d urge you to urgently embrace what’s available.

Parenting is challenging and the only training we get is through our own childhood experiences, many of which it would be preferable not to pass on. It’s easy to judge others but paragons of virtue are harder to locate. Plenty of us will have resorted to the sort of rage with our kids which would have us hurled out of a working environment in a second. Self-awareness is important, so focusing on how bad you feel afterwards is key. Like many parents I too have bad days but we all know when matters are escalating out of hand. Acts of violence toward young kids tentatively trying to find their feet in a puzzling world are an immediate STOP sign.

If you can’t learn to take a deep breath, step away and tackle confrontation with your children in a more reasonable way then you should urgently seek professional help (go to the Family Lives website). Once the rage is under control you’ll face the harder but ultimately rewarding work of addressing the damage already done.


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