Learning how to control your own behavior

What do you do when you really can't trust your gut instincts as a parent? I grew up in a dysfunctional home, and I really don't want to raise my children as I was raised. But sometimes I find myself yelling and sounding too much like my own mother. When sticky situations come up with my kids, I have no clue what I'm supposed to do. Any advice?



Atlanta, Ga.

Everyone inherited some good child-rearing skills from their parents, and everybody ended up with some they don't like.


"There are no perfect parents," says Thomas Paris, a marriage and family therapist in Marina Del Rey, Calif.

This is a complicated problem, and probably has more to do with inherited attitudes, parenting skills and self-control than it does gut instincts, says Alex J. Packer, author of "Parenting One Day at a Time" (Dell, $9.95, $13.95 Canada).

"Her gut instincts as a mother are to love and care for her children and do what's best for them," Packer says. "Every parent has that. There's probably something else going on."

It helps to spend some time in self-examination.

"In the area of attitudes, you may have unrealistic expectations for your children or excessive worry or intolerance," Packer says. "Are you always critical or judgmental?" Often these bad attitudes can result from the way parents themselves were treated as children, says Paris, co-author -- with former wife Eileen Paris -- of "I'll Never Do to My Kids What My Parents Did to Me" (Warner, $8.99, $11.99 Canada).

These leftover "tender spots," as the Parises call them, are what often cause parents to lose their composure with their own children. Whenever parents find themselves yelling or behaving in ways they don't like, the Parises urge them to think about how their own parents treated them.

"Underneath anger are hurt feelings," Eileen Paris says. "We ask parents what is the one thing they wish was different in their relationship with their parents when they were growing up. That's usually the tender spot."

Once parents identify what causes them to fly out of control, they need two things -- a substitute way of disciplining and communicating with their children and self-control. Many parents recommend getting professional counseling, reading parenting books or attending parenting classes and support groups. (The Parises' book outlines a simple, three-step method for communication and discipline that parents can begin to use immediately.)


"You can call your local United Way office to ask for referrals to agencies that offer parenting support and education in parenting skills," says Bambi Vargo, a reader from Mentor, Ohio.

Parent Gail Psyk of Tonawanda, N.Y., joined a group at her local school to learn better discipline methods.

"Having survived a dysfunctional home myself, I found [in the group] that there are many other parents in the same boat," Psyk says.

"I also gained confidence by observing parents in my community that I felt were positive role models and developed a base of

friends that I could talk to about those sticky situations I wasn't so sure about."

But just learning appropriate parenting skills isn't enough. Several parents spoke of anger and the blinding rage that their children can provoke.


"Instantly when things escalate, I put everyone in a time out," says Molly Dunning of Minneapolis, Minn. "That way I can assess my own feelings."

The most physical abuse and the most hurtful words occur within the first 10 seconds of a dispute, Packer says. That's why a time-out or counting to 10 can help parents break out of their old cycles.

It's never too late to change parenting patterns that you don't like in yourself, Packer says.

"There's no reason a parent can't be honest with their children and apologize," he says. "Just say, 'I have been yelling, and it's wrong. I don't want to speak to you that way. I will be working hard to change.' Then ask the whole family to help you change."

That worked for a mother from Buffalo, N.Y., who described herself as a former child abuser who grew up in a difficult home.

"You have to admit to your children that you have a problem," she says. "I asked my children to help me stop and to help me learn to become a loving parent. Now, I am finally learning."


Can you help?

Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to Go out: "My children, 8 and 5, never play outside," says Cindy Sikes of Tallahassee, Fla. "They want to stay inside all the time and mess up the house. Can anybody out there give me some suggestions? I need help."

Pub date: 7/14/96