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My eldest son and I have had a difficult relationship for some time. I have changed a great deal in terms of how I parent him, and I know I was far too strict towards him from years ago. He is currently six years old, and he can be angry. I know I've not parented him helpfully certainly in his early years, but I'm determined to make a change properly. I am desperate to have a proper relationship with him. I've tried getting into what he's into, which has helped, but I know that there's some stuff he is rightly angry about that I've done in terms of disciplining etc (e.g. I used to smack, but haven't for a long time. I still shout occasionally (which I know is not OK), but used to do that as a matter of course). My other two don't have the same anger and hurt because I changed hugely between him and the rest. Does anyone have any references or life experience to share for a roadmap to change the future? Sometimes he looks like he's scared of me and I really want to make that better -- I can't think of any other way to express it apart from a child's sentence. Sorry has been said but doesn't cut it and I know there's no 24-hour process.

Just to clarify, this isn't about the symptoms exhibited by my son, it's about how to make the future work.

  • I think that things are related: to make the future work, you need to also pay attention and take care about the symptoms exhibited by your son. – woliveirajr Oct 28 '14 at 14:14
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TL;DR: You can fix this, and do even better than that. You can become a great dad!

We always want our children to learn the consequences of their behaviors, believing that it's one of life's most valuable lessons. Now it's your turn to face consequences. There are no quick fixes.

You have given your eldest ample evidence that he should be afraid of and wary around you. To be desperate to change that is also to be unrealistic, and it basically means you want him to throw away the valid feelings he has for the risky proposition of trusting you again.

All parents make mistakes. I've made my share (maybe more). When I ask my (now adult) children what they remember of some of my worst behaviors, I am so grateful to hear that usually they don't remember anything. They do remember some of my apologies, though, and they laughingly remember some of the crazy restitutions I made when I was wrong (restitution is a big issue for me).

So, all that to say what you've done, whatever it is, may be fresh in his mind now, but it won't stay that way if you don't reinforce those memories anymore.

While I agree that parents aren't responsible for all of a child's personality, you have modeled anger as a coping device for him. You admit that you've smacked him and shouted at him, and he's (justly) wary/afraid. Sure, you didn't say "This is how I want you to act: get angry!" But kids do learn coping mechanisms from adults.

If you haven't done it already, I would advise you first to sit down with him and apologize (profusely) for what you've done to him that was unjust (knowing that not everything was so). Don't worry about putting it into child's sentences. He will likely understand even a fairly adult apology. Own what you've done, explain why it was wrong, explain how you now know why it was wrong, and ask him if he can forgive you (please don't demand it). Promise him you'll be more patient and wise from now on.

Next, stop yelling. Yelling is threatening to people who don't feel powerful, and he's had enough of it. Express your expectations in a calm and rational way. Use a method of discipline that allows you to emotionally disengage from the process, so that you won't get angry. [1]

Work on letting him express his feelings to you about things in a safe way. You can start with less threatening, positive feelings. Pay attention to what he says. Act on it when you can. Work around to negative things. Teach him feeling words so he can be accurate. Words like frustrated, grumpy, uncomfortable, worried, confused, safe, excited, proud, thankful, disappointed, lonely etc. [2] This will help him to identify his feelings and will present an opportunity to model how to deal with these feelings in a safe, wise way. Allow him to articulate negative feelings about your behavior; he has them whether they are articulated or not. You don't need to do what he wants you to do about them (he is only 6 after all), but you need to show him he's safe with you.

Finally, forgive yourself. Apologize, own, ask for forgiveness, and grant yourself some as well. We all make mistakes.

If you do these things, you will do far more for your son's well-being, his future, and his relationship with you than you can possibly imagine right now. Time does heal many wounds. Love in practice heals many, many more.

Below are more resources. Keep working on that relationship. You'll all win in the end.

[1] My go-to book for effective discipline is 1-2-3 Magic (appropriate starting at age two), one of most effective approaches to behavioral (self-) correction I've ever encountered. When applied correctly and consistently, it allows time outs to be applied without the parent losing their cool, while it gives your child (if not right now, it will early on) an opportunity to correct himself if he is able to before the time out, gaining some experience in self control and managing frustration without loss of self esteem. (1-2-3-Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 Thomas W Phelan PhD.)
[2] You can use appropriate words from lists here.
[3] Helping Young Children Manage the Strong Emotion of Anger
[4] Teaching Young Children Self-Control Skills

  • OP has not made any " mistake" . – Tiffany Oct 28 '14 at 1:46
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    @Tiffany - the OP feels that he has, by striking his child and shouting at him. See his post. – anongoodnurse Oct 28 '14 at 1:50
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    @Tiffany it's certainly a debatable concept, but many of us live in societies where striking another adult is considered criminal assault, so it's only natural that many would considering striking a child as a form of abuse. And while many of have at one time or another gotten to the point where we swatted a behind, we also shouldn't brush it off as just a 'different parenting style'. – DA01 Oct 28 '14 at 3:10
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    This is an excellent answer -- not sure how I can give more than my upvote! Excellent resources too, thankyou. – David Boshton Oct 28 '14 at 8:46
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    I understood now. Nice article – Tiffany Oct 28 '14 at 17:12
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There's nothing you really can do, aside from just treating him right going forward. He's still very young, and kids are more resilient than most adults give them credit for. However, you shouldn't expect to be able to undo something in less time than it took to do it.

That being said, parents tend to overestimate the influence they have on their children. Kids' personalities influence parenting style just as much as the other way around. rbp's answer was somewhat inartful, but the point is valid. Don't put it all on yourself. Even genetically identical kids with the same parenting at the same time can turn out very differently. Don't dismiss his personality as being entirely of your own making. If you act like his anger is all your fault, you won't be giving him the necessary tools to deal with it.

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I also recommend 123 Magic. If your son is not listening or following directions just count him. Say "that's 1". You wait to see how he responds. Don't say anything else. If he stops fine if he continues the same behavior, you count him on 2. At 3 he receives a time out or punishment. Do not let your emotions get to you and do not hit your child.

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