Tuesday 23 January 2018

I worry about my husband's aggression towards our son

Illustration: Maisie McNeice
Illustration: Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from clinical psychologist David Coleman on how men can deal with violence and ways to encourage your child to study for their Junior Cert.

Question: We have two boys, aged three and six. The six-year-old is very wilful and oppositional. I am really worried about how my husband responds to him. He gets so angry and ends up roaring, shouting and threatening our son. He has grabbed our son, roughly, several times in the heat of the moment. My husband does know he is doing wrong, but he just blames his own upbringing, as his father was a violent man who terrified the whole household. I don't know how to deal with things when it gets volatile, but I worry about them both.

David replies: You are right to worry about them both. However, the bigger problem that you have is with your husband and his behaviour.

If your husband does act, as you describe, then it is no wonder that your son appears wilful and oppositional. He has probably learned to be stubborn, angry and threatening from his dad.

Roaring, shouting, grabbing and manhandling a child, in the uncontrolled way that you describe, is never called for. It is simply not good enough for your husband to try to excuse his behaviour on the basis that this is how he was brought up.

While his mistreatment by his own father probably does explain why he now acts as he does, it does not excuse it. If your husband has the insight that his behaviour is wrong then he must take responsibility for changing it.

He does not have to be helpless in the aftermath of his own childhood.

Resolving your family's stress and distress starts with you and your husband having a 'state of the nation' -type discussion. I believe that the situation is so serious that you need to put significant pressure on your husband to deal with his anger and his behaviour.

If your husband continues, unchanged, then, as your son gets older, your son will probably become more entrenched in his opposition. In response, your husband will, most likely, become more aggressive and may even become more violent when challenged by his son.

Because, at the moment, your son is just six, he is the comparatively innocent recipient in the dynamic.

While he may well have a difficult and oppositional temperament, that can be helped by a different style of response from the adults that surround him.

He needs lots of firm but kind and compassionate responses. He needs you and his dad to try to translate his behaviour into an understanding of the distress, upset or bad feelings that underly it. I think your son is deeply unhappy and that he shows this through his misbehaviour.

Indeed dissatisfaction and sadness about the nature of your son's relationship with his dad might be at the heart of that unhappiness.

Your husband, especially, seems to have no regard for this and simply reacts to the behaviour that he sees.

As a consequence, he perceives your son to be 'bold' and, based on his own experiences as a child, will simply get angry and punish the misbehaviour.

Your husband does seem to accept that his behaviour towards his son is aggressive and violent. But, if he doesn't address it, it will become more aggressive and more violent as your son gets bigger, stronger and potentially more challenging.

I don't think that you are in a position to help your husband change, directly. However, I do think that you need to be instrumental in getting him to the point that he accepts that he needs to change.

If you can help him see that he needs to do more than blame his upbringing, while continuing to be overwhelmed by his anger and aggression, then you can also point him in the direction of where to get that help.

Your husband needs proper counselling or therapy. I'd highly recommend that he attends a MOVE group. MOVE (Men Overcoming Violence) is a structured group approach to understanding and changing violent behaviour.

You can find out more information on moveireland.ie, maybe even getting some support for yourself to help you help him to make these all important changes.

My 15-year-old is not making any effort to study and his Junior Cert is around the corner

Question: I am sure you get these problems every year, but my 15-year-old son is doing nothing for his Junior Cert and the exams are only around the corner. He has never been a strong student, but has always got by.

We never really pushed him because at all the parent-teacher meetings we get told how great he is. I think that is because he is so good at sports and they depend on him for the hurling team and the handball. It isn't that I have high expectations of him, but I do want him to do some work so that he does himself justice in June.

David replies: Without wanting to belittle your situation, you are fortunate that your son is still engaged in the education system. There are many youngsters who have become entirely disillusioned with school, to the point that they are ready to drop out after the Junior Cert.

That, at least, does not seem to be an issue for your son. He gets lots of positive feedback, in school, such that he probably experiences school as a place that enhances his self-esteem rather than damages it.

He sounds like he has great sporting skill and talent and it is brilliant that his teachers see this and acknowledge it, allowing this skill to balance out his apparent lack of application to his studies.

In many ways it is a good holistic view of him as a person. He may never set the world alight with his academic prowess, but he comes across as a "rounded" young lad.

Indeed, I wonder how much responsibility he takes for his sports? For example, does he commit to training? Does he work hard at his training sessions? Does he take on leadership roles, given his apparent talent? Is he dependable and reliable with his sports?

If the answer to these questions is yes, as I suspect it is, then you may be stressing needlessly over his lack of academic effort.

In my view, the Junior Cert exam is simply a stepping stone. Given the high levels of teenagers that go on to do the Leaving Cert, the Junior Cert rarely serves as the final adjudication of a youngster's academic ability. It may guide his subject choices at Leaving Cert, but little else.

That said, it is good that 15-year-olds have something to focus on, as it gives a useful short-term objective. Without that focusing function, teenagers would find it very hard to sustain their academic application all the way through to Leaving Cert.

The other really useful function that the Junior Cert can serve is that it allows youngsters the opportunity to take responsibility for their own performance.

As parents, we can't do the study for them, nor can we do the exam for them. The students themselves need to "step up to the plate" and be responsible for working towards their exams or not.

Our focus, then, needs to be on how we can encourage our teenagers to be personally motivated and to see value, for themselves, in preparing for and performing in the exams.

In this Saturday's Irish Independent, I will be writing in much more detail about motivation to study and to perform in the exams. So do be sure to read that too. But for now, for your son specifically, you can focus on linking his current application to his sports to the need for balance, such that he also focuses on his studies.

You have the benefit that, through his sport, he already knows about self-discipline and about putting in the effort in order to achieve. He just needs to realise that he must apply the same process to the academic side of his education.

Nagging him to study won't help, as that suggests to me that you are taking more responsibility for his study than he is. So, instead, keep passing back to him, that how well he does is a measure of his own effort and own commitment.

Remind him that if he can be committed to sport, then he can be committed to study too and that his academic effort now will stand to him in the years to come.

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