Q: My ex-wife married a man who is a much tougher disciplinarian than I am. He isn’t abusive, but they tell me he yells and screams a lot. What is the best way for me to deal with this?
A: Your concerns about harsh verbal discipline are well-founded. Researchers Ming-Te Wang and Sarah Kenny studied seventh-graders whose parents used yelling, swearing and name-calling as a form of discipline. This predicted more conduct problems and depressive symptoms later on. It could become a cyclical pattern; a child with conduct problems may lie to parents, damage property or engage in other behaviors that elicit even more yelling.
Build effective coping strategies. The research in this area is distressing; almost half of both fathers and mothers report using harsh verbal discipline. As a father, you cannot control the behavior of the stepfather even though the disciplinary method is ineffective. What you can do is brainstorm effective coping strategies with your children. It is important that they don’t buy into the negative messages, which is a difficult task even for adults to do when they are called names. It will be challenging for you, too. Remain calm as you hear specifics about these events because your goal is to help your children cope. What internal messages can they think about when this happens? What will help their emotional regulation? It is likely you will need to help your children individually because the best response will match each child’s developmental level and temperament.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the existence of angels: “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” (CCC #336) Encourage your children to call on this support during times of stress.
Dr. Cathleen McGreal is a psychology professor and certified spiritual director.