by Michelle Watson, PhD, LPC
I know that all families around the world have been thrown into an unusual situation lately with the COVID-19 pandemic. And maybe it’s starting to feel like it was a lifetime ago when you had the routines of work and school to help create space between and your kids, back when “absence made the heart grow fonder.” But now many of you dads are with your kids 24/7 and are having your patience tested every day, most of the day.
Let me be clear: It’s within normal limits to feel frustrated, where you’re at the end of your rope.
But feeling anger or frustration isn’t the problem. It’s what you do with those emotions that’s key.
You already know this, but when you don’t learn to deal with those emotions in non-destructive ways, too often it’s your children who suffer for it. That’s when your relationship with them begins to suffer. Think of it as the bridge between you getting bombed out when the anger grenades take out parts of it, sometimes leading to irreparable damage.
If you were to ask me for one piece of advice about where to deliberately focus your attention to keep you from creating distance or bitterness or frustration between you and your child, especially in this challenging season, without hesitation I would say: Stop venting your anger or frustration at him or her.
Dad, you’ve got to trust me on this when I say: Don’t ever justify your anger, telling yourself that your kids deserve it in order to learn something or get a lesson burrowed into their heads. Never settle for a response where you lash out at your kids with harsh words or actions just because you have that right or power as the parent. There are always better ways to address their behavior than yelling, belittling, or sarcasm—not to mention physical intimidation or abuse of any kind. If you recognize any of these negative patterns in your relationships, please take whatever steps are necessary to grow in this area. Refusing to do so is, to be blunt, irresponsible.
Now, you may know that I write and speak to dads about their daughters, which means that relationship is my area of expertise. Yet for the rest of this article I’ll focus on how your anger affects your daughter, but I know your sons are affected, too. So I’ll trust you dads of sons to apply these principles in appropriate ways to how you relate to your boys.
How does your anger impact your daughter?
- It destroys her spirit.
- It shuts her down.
- It makes her give up.
- It makes her believe that she unlovable and unworthy and not worth loving.
- It crushes the core of who she is.
Even if you feel justified in your expression of anger at her, stop and first ground yourself before exploding. I can tell you honestly that I hear more stories from girls about how their dad’s anger deeply impacts them than I do anything else about their dads. I see the pain in their eyes as they tell the stories, and my heart breaks because I know their dads love them. But oftentimes, when he’s had one too many things go wrong in his day with little to no margin left, he comes home and his daughter gets the fumes. It doesn’t take much for him then to blow, often treating her in a way that he later regrets, but by then the damage is done. She is left bleeding on the inside.
Remember, dad, that you are modeling for her the way that she should expect to be treated by a guy she dates and a guy she one day will marry. (And you’re setting an example that your son will likely follow!)
In your interactions with your daughter, perhaps it would help for you to think back to the day she was born, when you saw her as a fragile flower.
Recall how gently you held her, careful not to break her. You took extra precaution so as not to drop her head or jiggle her body too aggressively. You made sure you didn’t talk too loud or shout in order not to scare her. Do you remember that feeling of being overwhelmed with her adorable little features, and thinking that you had never held anything so small or beautiful?
Truth be told: This is how you still need to think of “holding her.” She is still just as delicate on the inside as the day she was born. She needs to be handled with kid gloves.
Here are three quick thoughts to help you put this into action:
1. Soften your tone. This is one important thing that my dad has done with me in order to connect with me (and sometimes it’s been me who has had to soften with him, so sometimes this goes both ways). I know this is something that doesn’t come naturally for him or any man for that matter, but it can be done if you set your intention to making it happen!
2. Look into her eyes. I believe that a man can change his anger patterns with someone he loves by slowing down and taking the time to look in her eyes to see into her soul. I’m not expecting you to be superhuman or perfect, but I do want to challenge you to make a commitment today to make a new covenant with your mouth to not vent anger at your daughter (or son) from this day forward. When triggered, choose to walk away and ground yourself first before responding. My suggestion is to take a “time out” that is as many minutes as your age, just like you gave to your kids when they were little. I promise you that this will give you the necessary time for your emotional midbrain to calm down so that your prefrontal cortex—where you think and have sound judgment—can come back online.
3. Make a decision to consistently water your “flower” with words of life! If you have negative patterns in how you relate to your daughter (or son), start some new, positive habits. Look for something good in her and point it out—every single day. Experts say it takes 19 days to create a new habit, so begin today! Notice and compliment something she does or simply speak positive words from your heart about who she is and what she means to you.
I know you can do it, dad. Your daughter (and your son) deserves the very best from you.
Dr. Michelle Watson is a licensed professional counselor in Portland, Oregon, founder of The Abba Project, a 9-month group forum for dads of daughters (ages 13 to 30), and author of Dad, Here’s What I Really Need from You: A Guide for Connecting with Your Daughter’s Heart, available on Amazon and Audible. Her next book, Let’s Talk: Conversation Starters for Dads and Daughters will be released in August 2020. She also hosts a weekly radio program in Portland called “The Dad Whisperer,” which you can access as a podcast on her website and on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play Music. Visit drmichellewatson.com for more information and to sign up for her weekly Dad-Daughter Friday blogs. You can also follow or send feedback on Facebook and Twitter.
Read more on this topic at fathers.com: Anger & Priorities