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What does being aggravated by your kids mean to you? According to a new Child Trends research brief, it means three things:

  1. Feeling frequently bothered by your child
  2. Feeling your child is more bothersome than other children the same age, and
  3. Feeling frequently angry with your child.

This sounds like a good definition of aggravation. But here’s the surprise: a comparison of parents’ feelings of aggravation reported between the late 1990s  to feelings reported as recently as 2012 found that parents’ aggravation has risen from 20% to as much as 35%.

One-in-three parents these days feel aggravated by their kids, up from one-in-five two decades ago.

Stressful family relationships matter. Researchers in this study note that “on average, children of parents with high levels of aggravation are less well-adjusted and experience more negative outcomes.” This means that feeling aggravated with your children makes your children behave more badly, which means you feel even more aggravated than before. This vicious cycle undermines your happiness, children’s academic success, and everyone’s physical and mental health.

Researchers suggest that the increase in parent aggravation may be linked to inappropriately high expectations for children’s behavior.  Kids are not allowed to be kids but are expected to be unquestionably obedient and compliant. The researchers also suggest that these unrealistic expectations are combined with harsh discipline methods that increase family stress without satisfying children’s need to be treated with respect.

Feeling aggravated is not caused by children actually being more aggravating than they used to be. Your kids are not worse than you were at the same ages. It’s caused by parents making less time for their kids and being too rigid and demanding.

So take a quick check: do you often feel aggravated by your children? Are you frequently bothered by your kids’ behavior and frequently angry at them? Do you imagine that your children behave worse than the kids next door? If these feelings are common for the grownups in your household, take these steps to make life go more smoothly:

  1. Slow down and pay attention to your kids. Notice what they’re good at and what they find difficult to do. (Hint: they may be good at sports but not so good at cleaning up after themselves.) Realize that this is who they are right now. You can’t blame them for being who they are.
  2. Take the time to teach what you want your kids to do. Once you realize your children are not so skilled at some things as you are, you can teach them the skills they need. Be patient and teach things step by step. Provide chances to practice.
  3. Avoid harsh punishment. Harsh punishment makes you feel worse and it doesn’t do much for your children either. It upsets everyone and leads to worse behavior, not better behavior. Wise up about discipline.
  4. Remember that your relationship with your children is lifelong. The respect and support you give your children now will repay itself in strong, positive interactions for years to come. A relationship that is characterized by aggravation isn’t a relationship that builds a foundation for the future.

It may be that you’re more aggravated by your children than your parents were with you. But that’s not because you were so much better as a child. Give your own kids the gift that you received, the gift of reasonable expectations and loving support.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Blaming something or someone else when we are angry, criticized, or thwarted in any way is as common among humans as laughing or crying. We naturally and automatically defend ourselves when we feel attacked, but each one’s perception of what amounts to an attack is up to individual interpretation. Unfortunately many parents feel under attack from even their smallest child. So we blame.

Blaming another for what is my problem, my responsibility, is clearly learned. To take responsibility for ourselves—our own behavior and emotions—is hard. We want others to suffer when we suffer. It’s called retaliation. We learn to retaliate when we are blamed—often at very young ages.

Whenever we feel blamed, we get defensive. So do our children. “Why did you do that?” “What did you do now?” “You always .…/never….” “I can’t leave you alone for a second!” “How dare you?” “How many times do I have to tell you…?” Just a tone of voice can send blame showering over a child filling him with tension and resistance—“Jason!” He has no option but to defend himself. “I didn’t do it!”

We live with the myth that a child who is blamed and yelled at is going to learn to take responsibility for her actions, own up to everything, and never do it again for fear of displeasing us. That’s not how it works. When children feel blamed, their focus turns inward with self-protection, and they defend themselves against the blame to keep from “getting in trouble”. More spirited children resist with aggressive behavior, act out and learn how to get sneaky and shirk responsibility.

Children with a more compliant, adaptable temperament take blame personally, plummet into guilt and self-doubt, learn that “everything” is their fault and that they are a disappointment, and lose self-esteem. These children look like the good girls and boys because they are able to shift their behavior to keep out of trouble—but at the cost of self-worth and confidence. These children are the reason we keep using blame and punishment because it looks like it works. But once self-esteem drops, trouble begins.

When children who are used to being blamed become parents, they continue to blame. It’s hard not to. It comes trippingly off the tongue. Teaching children to be well disciplined, respectful, and responsible can be done far better with no blame. Once you understand the principle of blame and how it plays out, you will never want to blame again.

Blame provokes defensive behavior. Running away, laughing, hitting, pushing, lying, yelling, “you’re not the boss of me”, “you can’t make me”, “you’re so mean”—are all defensive actions to “get back” for getting blamed. Some children become overly concerned about how you feel. “Are you happy, Mommy?” means the child has learned to take responsibility for your feelings and likely feels guilty if you are upset. Your happiness means he can relax.

A mother of two young daughters has been trying to convince her girls that they are not responsible for her feelings. The six year old said to her, “But when you scream at me for not turning off the television, I know you wouldn’t scream if I turned it off, so that means I’m responsible for your feelings.” Pretty astute for a six year old!

When we blame in anger, we indeed teach our children that they are responsible for our feelings and our behavior. “You make me so mad. Why do I have to yell 10 times before you listen? Or “It makes mommy happy when you do that.”

 We don’t pay attention to the messages we send our children with blame. “You’re the bad one, I don’t approve of you, My love is conditional on your behavior, You don’t have a right to your own feelings and desires, You have to make other people happy with your behavior.”

 When we refrain from blame, even when one child has hurt another badly, we can put our attention on the hurt and allow the hurter to take in the situation he has caused. When he is blamed, he cannot because all he can focus on is getting out of trouble or blaming the other for starting it. When he is not blamed he actually experiences the consequences of his behavior. You can then offer him ways to make amends. “Do you want to get the icepack to hold on your brother’s arm?” Later you can talk about his anger and how to express it differently.

Problem solving and conflict resolution promotes true accountability. Blame and punishment prevents it. When children know they are not going to get in trouble, the fear of trouble no longer drives them to defensive behaviors.

Someone recently asked me what the two things moms feel most guilty about are. I believe they are doing things for ourselves and disciplining our children.

We all know the importance of taking care of ourselves, yet most of us seldom do.  We are so caught up in the daily tasks of cooking, cleaning, driving, tutoring, errands, and tending to everyone else’s needs that we often forget moms matter too.  But when we take that rare time for ourselves (or even our relationships), the guilt sets in.  Guilt that you’ve left your children, for spending money, or just for indulging in something that’s just for you.

Why?  Because our lives have become too kid centric.  When everything you do, day in and day out, revolves around your children, it actually feels WRONG to do something for yourself.  When you buy everything for your children, and nothing for yourself, indulging may feel sinful.  But really, ladies, who are we kidding?  We work hard, and certainly deserve some time and money for ourselves.  After all, you really can’t take care of others if you are not okay.  If you keep going like a robot, without ever doing something for yourself, I can pretty much guarantee you will snap.

You’re also worried about leaving the children with a babysitter or your mother-in-law.  You’re feeling like you’re a bad parent for leaving, that you should be there to tuck them in to bed every night.  Well guess what?  They’ll be fine, and they might even have fun.  Sometimes kids need a break from us as much as we need it from them.  And your kids will learn some important things, such as how to be flexible when Grandma or the babysitter doesn’t do everything exactly the way you do.  They will learn that they can separate from you and still be ok, and that you always come back.

Similarly, everyone knows the importance of discipline in raising respectful children, yet we all struggle with it.  To be clear, discipline means “training to act in accordance with rules”, and actually comes from the same Latin root word as disciple. Discipline is about teaching, not about punishing or hurting. We want our kids to be polite and caring, and to know right from wrong.  So why is it so hard to follow through?  One word…GUILT.  Guilt that you just took away the new toy your child bought with his own hard-earned money.  Guilt that you cancelled that play date or made your child stay home from a party.  Guilt that you’ve upset your child.

Why?  Discipline is not black and white. There are so many styles of parenting and discipline, and so much controversy surrounding them, that it’s no wonder we don’t feel confident in our choices.  Your lack of confidence and discomfort in upsetting your child make you doubt if you’re doing the right thing.  I’m here to tell you that you are.  Children need rules and limits in order to feel secure.  It’s your job to enforce them; even it means your child might be upset with you.  Your child must understand that he is not in charge, does not run the universe, and will not always get his way.

So what’s a mom to do?  How can you overcome these feelings of guilt?  The good news is you can learn to change your beliefs about guilt.  Push yourself to do these things, even when you feel guilty about it, and you will see that the guilt lessens over time.  Why?  Because you will see the benefits of doing so, and you will slowly realize that the rest of the family benefits just as much as you do.  Remind yourself that you work incredibly hard, and that you’re important too.  Remind yourself that you must teach your children the way you expect them behave, or they will never learn how.  And when you get discouraged, simply take a look around.  By taking care of yourself and disciplining the children, your household will be a happier place for everyone. It’s time to stop saying, “I feel guilty” and start saying, “I’m doing the right thing”! Moms CAN overcome their guilt.