With children and parents under increasing stress, there's a corresponding rise in the risk of reaching the breaking point.
A Fridley couple was arrested last week after they shaved their 12-year-old daughter's head and made her run windsprints outside the family's home while wearing a diaper as punishment for getting an "F" on her report card. Tailor-made for tabloid sensationalism, the story quickly garnered national attention, and by the weekend, it had gone international, turning up everywhere from Singapore to Abu Dhabi.
Because the family's identity is being withheld to protect the child's privacy, attempts to analyze how the family reached that point would be pure speculation. But one thing is clear. Behind the eyebrow-raising events is a very real -- and common -- problem: How do parents keep from losing their composure when they feel exasperated in dealing with their children?
"Raising kids is really hard right now," said Jean Illsley Clarke, an award-winning author of parenting books, the most recent of which is "How Much Is Enough?" Children and parents often find themselves pushed to the breaking point by overbooked schedules and intense societal pressures to keep up with everyone else who is overbooked.
"I know mothers who spend their entire lives in the car" driving their kids from soccer practices to dance lessons to scout meetings, she said from her office in Minneapolis. "When we feel that we've reached the breaking point, we need to check our own stress level."
Blaming the kids is the easy way out, she said. It's the parents who are supposed to be in control of those things.
"When we get exasperated with our children, we need to change our behavior," she said. "We want them to change their behavior, but that's not going to happen. Our 2-year-old is pushing us? That's what 2-year-olds do. The cure for a 2-year-old is turning 3. The cure for a 13-year-old is turning 14. That can be really tough for a parent."
Shannon Dufresne, a 24-year veteran of the early childhood education program in the St. Francis School District, warns parents who get frustrated while dealing with their children to watch out for what she calls "an emotional hijacking."
"Kids aren't the only ones who have tantrums," she said. "Parents have them, too. We stomp down stairs and slam doors and drive too fast. As parents, we get there a lot, especially when we get tired."
She teaches strategies for dealing with the stress before it reaches the melt-down stage. First on her list is finding a support network.
"It can be family members, friends from the neighborhood, associates at work, people in your faith community, teachers and counselors at school," she said. "Think of all the places that you can go to get support."
Another suggestion: Remember that part of growing up is to push the boundaries, and instead of getting angry when your child challenges an order, be willing to consider at least partial mediation.
"There are rules that are non-negotiable," she said. "You need non-negotiable rules. A lot of times they deal with safety or really important family values and beliefs. But even with the non-negotiable rules, there often is room for a little negotiation. For instance, say that bedtime is 8:30. That's not negotiable. But what is negotiable is how you get there. What bed do you lie down in? What stuffed animal do you bring to bed? What bedtime story gets read? You can negotiate the process."
When it comes to avoiding emotional hijacking, Dufresne likes to reference "Six Steps to Cool Down" by Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota. (See accompanying list on E1.)
"The goal is to calm down and regroup," she said. "I tell my kids all the time: 'Stop for a minute and think about what you're doing.' That's the point of this: To stop for a minute so you can think."
There have been numerous studies showing that anger impedes decisionmaking, said Becky Dale, senior director of Prevention Initiatives for Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota.
"I like to use the analogy of holding four colored markers in my hand," she said. "With them, I can make 16 combinations. When I get angry, one is taken away, so I'm down to three. Now I can make nine combinations, which is still pretty good but isn't as good as 16. But the madder I get, the more markers I lose and the fewer options I have."
Knowing what to expect from a child is another potent parenting tool, she said.
"When my son was 6, he refused to sit still, and I blamed myself," she said. "Then I read a piece on developmental stages that said that 6-year-olds rarely sit down for long. And that made me realize that it wasn't me, it was normal."
Making sure that parents have access to the resources they need is crucial, she said. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the Kaiser Permanente health system have shown a cause-and-effect relationship between troubled childhoods and adult health issues, crime and even impaired worker performance.
"If every child had a great start, what a payoff for the country it would be," she said. "This isn't just about parents. We all can do better."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392