The moment you step into parenthood, you inadvertently drag along old habits and entrenched ideologies that prove difficult to shake off. Among these echoes of the past are certain beliefs, like the centuries-old idea that left-handedness in children was a sign of evil or witchcraft. Respectable parents were expected to make their child right-hand dominant, a notion that now seems ludicrous in the face of science. Genetics, not societal norms, determines hand dominance. Similarly, there might be moments when you may react in an undesirable way, possibly resorting to aggression, which leads to the important question, what to do now when you hit your kid and shouldn’t have? A question we need to address urgently for the betterment of our parenting approach.
No matter what science says about beating, if you ask a parent how they feel about it, you will quickly find disagreement. More than seventy percent of Americans agreed with the Brookings Institution in 2012 that physical punishment, such as spanking, is occasionally essential for child discipline. And a piece in the Journal of Family Psychology says that about 80% of the world’s children are spanked. This shows how long people have believed that hitting kids will change their behavior and teach them good manners and obedience.
But science doesn’t support this idea. In fact, a study of 160,927 children found that beating had more negative, long-term effects on behavior than positive ones.
It’s common knowledge that raising a family is challenging. Dangerous changes to reproductive rights, rising costs for child care, and worries about the housing and job markets are all signs of this. Parents’ stress can sometimes lead to unexpected ways of disciplining their kids. And it’s not just about beating. When your children refuse to quit fighting, you can use a chanclazo (smack with a sandal) on their hands or feet. It could be putting down your child verbally or yelling at them when you are very angry or stressed out.
If you’ve hit your child out of anger, you’re not the only one; experts say there are ways to deal with it.
How Beating Kids Affects Them
The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t think spanking is a good way to manage kids. Instead, they say parents should praise good behavior, ignore bad behavior, and be a good example of good behavior. Even though spanking may be done out of anger, especially with all the stresses in the world today, it can cause more than just local pain for your child.
Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, says that hitting kids can hurt their development. This is especially true for younger children’s executive function, which includes working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.
When a child is hit, the stress of it makes the child’s emotional reaction take over, which slows down the executive. Because of this change, the boss is never in charge very much,” says Dr. Merzenich.
It can also lead to a biological paradox that is bad. “They have conflicting instincts to flee from potential danger and to seek comfort from their caretaker,” says Dan Siegel, M.D., a psychiatrist, co-author of No-Drama Discipline, and original co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. In other words, no parent wants their child to learn that it’s okay to keep going back to the individuals who’ve injured them for affection.
How to Keep from Hitting Your Kids
Experts suggest there are techniques for parents to avoid ever having to smack their children, so don’t let the aforementioned scare you. The trick? Learn how to control your own feelings so you don’t get so angry that you hurt someone physically.
Understand your anger.
Dr. Merzenich says that when you get angry, your brain is very busy for 1 to 3 minutes. “The easiest thing a person can do when they are angry is to be ready to just wait. Let it pass. Get in the habit of letting things go. That changes everything; it changes the amygdala, which is a part of the brain that controls feelings and actions. You can learn how to be patient.”
Identify your triggers.
It’s also important to know what makes you respond the way you do. An angry parent may unconsciously react to the methods by which their parents taught them right from wrong.
“When Black parents do things like reactively spank their kids, it’s often because of our own pain and fear…Trina Greene Brown, an author, activist, and founder of Parenting for Liberation, a non-profit organization that works to build strong and happy Black families, says that when we see our kids acting in a way that could put them in danger, it brings up memories of slavery, Jim Crow, and people being shot in front of their children. “It’s not a good way to keep our kids safe, and it ends up hurting them.”
Find ways to keep your cool.
It’s also a good idea to find ways to calm down regularly. Dr. Merzenich advises meditation. Remember that incorporating mindfulness routines for the whole family can also strengthen bonds, relieve stress, and help kids become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, so they can better control them.
Take care of yourself.
And if you act out because you’re stressed, find ways to calm down. For example, asking for help in straight two-parent homes where the work isn’t shared equally is important.
Anita Bhatia, the deputy executive director of UN Women, says that a woman who is not in an abusive relationship should ask her partner to share the care of their children and household chores more equally. She also says that the coronavirus pandemic has hurt moms more than it should have because they have had to do more unpaid work than ever before.
“Mothers are having a hard time from a mental health point of view, and many societies don’t take mental health problems seriously,” says Bhatia. If you don’t have a partner, ask a family member, friend, or even your kids to help out more.
What to Do If You Hit Your Child
Don’t panic if you’ve already hit your child. It is possible to move forward in a good way.
Recognize what you’ve done.
Experts say that in order to fix things with their kids, adults should first admit what went wrong. Dr. Siegel says, “Every time you hit your child, it’s important, so own what you did.” Then talk to your child about what happened and try to make them feel better. “Ask your child how they are feeling. Then give them a hug, talk to them on their level, and comfort them,” Dr. Siegel says.
Speak to your kid.
What can you say? Greene Brown suggests saying something like, “When I did that, I realized it hurt you. I’m sorry, but I shouldn’t have done that. Let’s make a deal about how we’re going to act from now on.” Greene Brown says that when we take responsibility for our actions, we teach our children how to take responsibility for their own actions and hold others responsible for theirs.
If you are worried that you may have hurt your kid, you can call or text the Childhelp National Kid Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-kid (1-800-422-4453), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Parents can also look for a professional who helps people deal with their anger.
Even if parents are skeptical of the mental health care industry, the first step toward ending the stigma and getting help is acknowledging the problem. And always remember to love yourself and know that every parent makes big mistakes, but our brains can also make big changes.
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