When parents morph into 'monsters'

Life during the coronavirus pandemic became one shouting match after another for Mrs A.

Overwhelmed by home-based learning and worried about one of her daughters’ Primary School Leaving Examination, she screamed at them. Her new helper had a poor work attitude and Mrs A had to pick up the slack, so she scolded her too.

She argued frequently with her husband, who was depressed about his dwindling business, further fracturing their already strained marriage.

“She was exhausted all the time and lost her temper easily,” says Ms Theresa Pong, principal counsellor at Focus on the Family Singapore, whose team counselled both husband and wife. She shared the case study with The Sunday Times.

“Mrs A’s case is not uncommon; we are seeing an increasing number of parents facing similar challenges,” she adds.

Experts say the impact on children of parents acting out can be far-reaching and suggest that adults deal with stress together with their kids.

Ms Christine Wong, founder and principal psychotrauma coach at RhemaWorks International, a private consultancy that offers life and personal coaching and therapy, has also seen similar cases of overstressed parents recently.

She cites the case of a client who scolds and hits her children over minor incidents and feels “helpless, trapped and emotionally unstable”.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness who has a special interest in depression and other mood and anxiety disorders, says he has been hearing from parents who are more irritable and frustrated with their children while stuck at home.

“The parents usually feel very guilty having lost their cool. However, I haven’t seen any cases of overt abuse.”

Ms Pong notes that stay-home measures have increased parental stress in multiple ways, from cabin fever with no downtime, to managing kids all by themselves while fulfilling work commitments, being forced to work more closely with their spouse, and fears about the family’s finances, health and lifestyle.

5 ways to manage parental stress 

EMOTIONAL SUPPORT FROM SPOUSE MATTERS

Husbands should make time to listen to their wives and encourage them. “If this can be practised for just 10 to 15 minutes a week, it could start to change the emotional state of the mother and translate thereafter towards improving the overall atmosphere of the home,” says Ms Theresa Pong, principal counsellor at Focus on the Family Singapore.

MAKE “ME TIME” A PRIORITY

Carve out time for yourself in the family timetable and take turns taking care of the children during that period, says Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness. “Parents can also establish areas that are out of bounds to the kids so that they can have some respite.”

Kundalini yoga teacher Tina Chugani-Nair taught her daughters that they should not disturb her during “mummy time”. “Setting that boundary is so important. Because if you don’t, then they’re always going, ‘Mummy can you do this, Mummy can you do that.'”

BE KIND TO YOURSELF

“Cognitively, parents need to understand that they need not be perfect or attend to their kids all the time,” Dr Lim says. When they are healthy mentally and physically, they are better able to care for their children.

Ms Pong encourages mothers to “reflect upon the blessings amid the uncertainties” of the pandemic.

COMMIT TO COMMUNICATE

Arrange family chats where everyone can share how they feel without being interrupted or judged, says Ms Christine Wong, founder and principal psychotrauma coach of RhemaWorks International.

Parents should also allow themselves to be vulnerable to their kids when they get worked up. “Say things like, ‘I’m sorry, I feel I am being triggered right now and it has nothing to do with you. Let me have some time alone – you play in your room.'”

SEEK HELP

Check on your emotional state using the online tool on Focus on the Family Singapore’s website (www.family.org.sg/TakeaMoment). The tool also offers conversation starters for wives to use with their husbands, as well as a limited number of free consultations.

Ms Wong is holding a free online parenting talk on May 28. Register at www.christinewong.sg. She also holds Facebook Live Q&A sessions on Thursdays at www.fb.com/systemoftheheart.

While many parents had high expectations of how they wanted to spend time with their kids during the circuit breaker, they struggle with balancing working from home and taking care of their little ones.

As the lines between work and family blur, the “extra stress can result in disappointment and even resentment, causing them to lose emotional regulation”, she says.

While this can happen to both mothers and fathers, Ms Wong says mums are more prone to it as they tend to be the primary caregivers.

Focus on the Family’s survey of 1,076 mothers in March and last month bears this out.

Sixty per cent of mums surveyed by the local charity rated their stress level as seven out of 10, a marked increase from 52 per cent in last year’s survey.

The report notes that mothers are at risk for poor emotional and mental health as well, as more than six in 10 respondents had insufficient sleep of six hours or less.

Ms Wong says parents should look out for these emotional red flags: setting too many rules and being triggered when their child does not follow them, being too controlling and using methods such as shouting and hitting and blaming the child for misbehaviour.

“The truth is, it is not the child’s fault. The child is only being a child. We all know this, yet we unconsciously expect them to have the intellectual capacity and behaviour of an adult,” she says.

Parents can inflict “unconscious emotional trauma” when they call their children names, label them naughty or stupid, or guilt-trip them, she adds.

Over time, such trauma becomes ingrained in the child’s belief system. When they become mums and dads themselves, they repeat their parents’ negative patterns of behaviour, and it becomes a vicious circle, she says.

Dr Lim explains that in the short term, kids who are emotionally abused may cling to their parents even more, fearing that they will be abandoned. They may also act up more.

“In the longer term, if the emotional abuse continues, the child may grow up to have low selfesteem, anxiety, depression and personality disorders,” he says.

Ms Pong adds that while many children are resilient and can overcome adversity, this should not be an excuse for parents to “normalise what could potentially turn abusive”.

“Instead, we can turn ‘failed parenting moments’ into teachable moments for our children and ourselves,” she explains.

“It starts with the grown-ups recognising how they ‘lost it’ or overreacted, apologising to their child for their misplaced or misdirected reaction/behaviour and processing with their child a better way to deal with stress, tension or misbehaviour together when it next arises.”

Ms Connie Ting, 37, learnt this lesson the hard way when she sought Ms Wong’s help two years ago, after realising that she had lost control of her emotions, even slapping her eldest child during a heated argument.

“My children called me a ‘tiger mum’. They loved me, yet they feared me,” says the stay-at-home mother of five children aged six to 12.

She learnt to see things from her children’s perspective – fights, for example, tended to stem from play fighting, rather than a sibling intentionally wanting to hurt another.

Now, if her children misbehave, she makes sure she and the child both calm down before talking about what happened, and she apologises if she is in the wrong.

Her relationship with her brood of five has improved so much that she has enjoyed their time together during the circuit breaker.

Her kids now tell her she is “very sweet and kind” and “always very comforting and encouraging”, she says, adding that “it’s so different (from previously)”.

Ms Tina Chugani-Nair, 44, uses the tools she learnt as a kundalini yoga teacher to deal with stay-home stress, slotting in a couple of minutes of poses and breathing exercises whenever she needs time out from her two girls, aged eight and six.

“It’s not just parental stress; even the kids feel it, spending so much time with their parents,” says Ms Chugani-Nair, who has been teaching for 11 years.

Kundalini yoga is said to benefit both mind and body, strengthening the nervous and immune systems and improving mental clarity.

She also practises mindfulness and yoga with her daughters, letting them take the lead when they ask for it. “I think it gives them that calmness, and we also laugh it out,” she adds.

Ultimately, while it is normal for parents to act up when they are stressed, Ms Pong emphasises that they should always remember to affirm their children.

“Our affirmation plays a big part in building our children’s mental health. Our children need to know that parents are the safest people to go to if they need help.”

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