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Is It Okay If Your Child Fears You?

Photograph by Getty Images/Blend Images

Fear is not the first feeling I want to elicit from my children when I see them in the morning. Fear is not how most mothers want their kids to say they feel about them. But fear is a natural byproduct of the parent-child dynamic, no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of it.

Think about it: We tower over our children (not for very long in my case). We establish rules over them and enforce consequences when those rules aren't followed. When our voices raise from calm and patient to unusually loud and agitated, our kids are taken aback and often startled. Fear of consequences is part of a healthy relationship we have with our children.

But when our children fear us? Well, that's another story.

I have two boys—one is three and one is four. A couple of months ago, they went through an extremely challenging phase. And by "challenging," I mean they lacked the ability to exist in the same vicinity without tearing each other apart. They were at each other's throats constantly.

I recognized it as a phase at first. So I approached the situation like any other: calmly, with patience and empathy. I'd ask them nicely to stop. I'd suggest other activities to distract them from the negative behavior. I'd count to three as a warning that if they continued hitting or pushing or biting they'd be put in time-out.

But my patience dwindled with each passing day. After a week, calm went out the window and empathy was a distant memory. After two straight weeks of constant misbehavior and aggression, I finally cracked. "THAT'S ENOUGH! I'M SICK OF THIS FIGHTING!" I screeched at the top of my lungs.

The kids saw fire radiate from my skin as fright gripped their faces. I ripped the toys from their hands and locked myself in the bathroom.

After a couple of deep breaths (and a few sobs), I was immediately overrun with guilt. Guilt for losing my cool. Guilt from hearing my kids cry for me on the other side of the door. Sitting there on the toilet seat, I texted my husband; tears dropped onto my iPhone. "I just lost my shit on the kids."

Later that day I called my dad to talk about what happened. I felt the need to confess my sins; I was so disappointed in myself for turning into "Crazy Bitch Mom."

My dad's response was, "Don't apologize. It's okay if your kids fear you a little."

I sat and thought about that for a long time. I recalled my childhood and how fearing my parents kept me from making dangerous and potentially life-changing decisions. But I didn't want to jump into a new parenting style without considering some consequences first.

I reached out to two mental health professionals for their take.

Kristen England, NCC and School Counselor at Fairfax County Public Schools, believes fear can be healthy, as long as the fear is directed at consequences and not at the parent. She believes that "as long as there is trust and communication" fear can be helpful.

"When kids trust that their parents enforce consequences because they love them, it can encourage them to make the right decisions. It helps the child develop a strong sense of moral ethics and accountability. Also, when parents have an open and honest communication with their child, the fear can be rationalized, and therefore, justified to the child."

After explaining my story to licensed psychologist, Samantha C. Sweeney, Ph.D., from Family Psychological Services of Capitol Hill, she offered a similar perspective.

"I do think there is a difference between your child being scared of you and a child being worried or concerned that he or she will disappoint you. I think the assumption that was made is that once you yelled, they were fearful of you. This is probably not the case. It is likely that your boys have formed a deep and secure attachment to you. With secure attachment, yelling once at your child does not (typically) elicit fear. The child may be shocked, upset, angry, but probably not afraid. Parents are human too, and it is important for our children to see that."

She continued offering some advice on how to handle situations like mine.

"Sit eye-level with your child, apologize for yelling, and let your child know that is not the best way to handle the situation. Explain that mommy (or daddy or other caregiver) is human and can get upset and make mistakes too. Tell them exactly what they were doing that was frustrating and unacceptable and offer a few suggestions of acceptable alternative behaviors."

So I came to realize that my dad's advice was wrong. And when I really looked back on it, I guess my fear was in fact more of consequences as opposed to my parents themselves. The fear was of being grounded or of losing privileges, or even of disappointing them as opposed to fear that my mom would flip out on me or that my dad would physically harm me in any way.

Fear, as it turns out, is disadvantageous, and Dr. Sweeney offered an anatomical explanation for why that is the case.

"When someone is angry or fearful or very upset, the rational, logical part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, shuts down. It is very hard to access logic when you are upset—you are running on pure emotion. The part of the brain responsible for this emotional activation is called the amygdala. Activation of the amygdala can be a good thing when you are in a truly dangerous situation.

However, we want our children to use logic when faced with most situations. They are typically not in great danger and don't need to decide to fight or run. They need to activate and develop their prefrontal cortex, which helps them to plan, use logic, and understand consequences. Inducing fear (or anger or more frustration) will just further activate the amygdala, ensuring that the child is not using their prefrontal cortex. It is important to allow your child (and you!) to calm down after some fighting and yelling has occurred. This is a good opportunity to use time out—not as a punishment, but as a tool to collect yourself so that you and your child can start to use your prefrontal cortex."

So when my boys enter another challenging phase (and trust me, they will), I will be better prepared to handle it. Hopefully I won't be pushed to my limit, but I'm only human and will have occasional blow ups.

When those blow ups occur, I will have a different narrative to offer than one of me crying in the bathroom, frustrated with myself for thinking I made my kids afraid of me. I'll remember I haven't traumatized my children. I'll remember that as I understand and forgive my kids' emotional breakdowns, they are well-equipped to forgive mine. I'll remember that at times, in our struggle to establish control and obedience, using fear may seem appealing, but it isn't an effective path.

But most importantly, I'll remember to guide my kids with my prefrontal cortex.

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