Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Confronting the violence within

Today is the first day of Lent, a period of particular introspection and reflection on the good, the bad and the ugly within ourselves. I thought I'd kick it off with a reflection on violence.


I always thought I was the sort of person who would never hit a child. And then I had kids.

I have discovered great wells of violence within me. There are moments when my kids, those fantastic people I longed for and love to be around, drive me absolutely crazy, and I realise I want to hit them – and as awful as those moments are, those are the good ones. When I realise that's how I'm feeling, I walk out of the room, or take a deep breath, or sit on my hand and pray.

Worse are other moments, when everything's just fine or at least only a little bit wobbly, and then something happens and before I realise it I've smacked. It's only afterwards that I register what I've done, and then I'm appalled, absolutely revolted, by my action.

On Monday it happened again. After a long day with a stubborn two year old, I picked up my other kids from school. They were foully grumpy, squabbling and slapping and snarling at each other and me. I understood that they were hungry and tired, so I sidestepped numerous confrontations, and instead whisked them home and put together an enormous snack full of protein and carbohydrates. When they had eaten and drunk, and cheered up a bit, I suggested a calming bath.

Two chose the bath, and here I must admit that I may be the only parent I know who loathes sitting in the bathroom while kids slosh around and drink the bathwater, but there you are; it bores me silly. Some days I take in stories to read aloud; other days, I sit with the cryptic crossword.

On this day, everyone was sloshing around happily until my four year old threw a toy in her sister's face. I told her to get out. She wouldn't, so I ordered her. She stood up and screamed 'I hate you!'; and I snapped. I smacked her so hard I left fingermarks, then sent her to her room.

Her behaviour was so minor, and my reaction was so out of proportion, that I feel sick. She was tired; I know she is playing the 'I hate you' card these days; I know I'm the adult around here. But it got to me so fast and so hard that my hand reacted before my mind realised it was going to.

My daughter cried for a minute, then dressed herself and began to sing. Meanwhile, I shook and wept on the phone to my husband; and I still feel nauseated by myself and the violence within. I feel like she really should hate me now, this awful monster who hit her; and yet it doesn't seem to have affected her at all. She's been cheerfully affectionate ever since, with no discernible difference in her behaviour.

It reminds me of being smacked by my own mother. She always yelled a lot, but she rarely hit us. The yelling was awful. I became a secretive and scared child. I'd hide what I was doing and withhold information because I never knew what would send her off; when she yelled, she ripped shreds off me. Even now, as an adult, I withhold information just in case my gentle and generous husband, who has enormous reserves of patience, suddenly flips. It's completely irrational, but the learned behaviour runs deep.

Maybe half a dozen times, my mother smacked; and the smacking was great. It was a discrete event, usually deserved; it was quick and clean; and, unlike the yelling, it didn't make me feel like a worm.

On one occasion, my sister and I deliberately drove her wild. We pushed and pushed and pushed until she finally snapped, smacked, and burst into tears, and we were so filled with remorse that we hugged her, and stroked her, and told her, truthfully, that we deserved it; we told her that she'd done the right thing. Of course, that made her cry even more.

And here I am today, sobbing over having smacked my own daughter, who despite it has continued to cuddle me and stroke my hair and show me infinitely more affection than I deserve. Yet again a child shows more maturity and generosity than this woman in her thirties.

This is not to say that I think smacking is okay; I am big and strong and it is abusive for me to use this power against the little ones. In any case, my children mimic the behaviours they see, so if I smack, then they will hit and it will all spiral down. But it is complicated – smacking is obviously violent, but in my experience words can be just as damaging – which is why I'm trying to unravel what happened that night.

I realise I only smack or scream when I'm tired, alone with the kids and have no one to deflect them to. It happens when I can no longer curb my first – and worst – impulse. When I'm feeling fine, I'll engage in preventative action, that is, make choices so that we never get to the inflammatory stage. However, last night, I was wrecked. I ran the bath, then sat there doing the crossword and feeling irritated that they were drinking the bathwater.

Instead, I could have taken a story book into the bathroom and read to them; I could have sung or made a few jokes while they were splashing around; I could have engaged in role play while they filled the plastic cups and had their tea party. Or, if I was cranky already, I could have avoided the bath altogether. Quite simply, if I'd paid enough attention to myself or to them, the situation may never have arisen. Even if it had, I might have been more able to recognise 'I hate you' as a tired four year old's request for a cuddle; this is how I usually interpret it, and a cuddle soothes that temper every time.

The frustrating thing is that I know all this. I know that smacking and shouting get us nowhere; I know alternative ways to parent and usually use them, but, like every other area of life, it's easier to do the right thing when I'm not tired. As to how to have three children and be talked at incessantly and engage in constant discipline and murmur positive encouragement and prepare five meals a day and do all the housework and engage in some restorative adult activities and not be perpetually tired, well, that's a puzzle I am yet to solve.

My only hope is that by confronting the violence within myself – by naming it and trying to understand the triggers – then next time I might see it coming and choose a different path.

(There are some great lists of alternatives to smacking – or screeching – on the internet. Try here for 21 alternatives, or just google 'alternatives to smacking'. You will find some creative ideas for different behaviours and different ages.)


  1. I have experienced this. In my particular situation (I have suffered from un diagnosed depression/anxierty for a long time ) in the moments when all was chaos it has helped understanding what might trigger me to react in this way & then to make sure I pick up on the warning signals from my body that indicate I am not coping. I usually map it on paper & work out what I sensed, felt, what was said, how did my body respond, was it positive, negative or neutral & what did I do to make it better. It doesn't mean I don't react but I might recognise & then stop the unhelpful pattern before I explode like a volcano. I learned this skill & a few other things at a mindfulness seminar that I went to for those who suffered from stress & depression. That was my situation. Thanks for sharing about a a difficult issue
    Joanne Pope

  2. Thanks Joanne for your terrific comment - the body stuff is really helpful. I have gradually learned to notice when my heart is racing or my breath is tight, because it's then that things are about to get hairy - and if I catch it in time, then I can shake my hands and shrug my shoulders and take a few big slow breaths and even, sometimes, if I'm about to yell I instead turn the burst of sound into a dreadful operatic aria - anything to break the tension in my body and in the air. The problem is of course when I don't pay enough attention.

    I'd worry what the neighbours think as I'm singing away like a Wagnerian lunatic except I hear them all screaming at their kids from time to time! God help us all.


  3. Oh yes, singing instead of screaming! "I whistle a happy tune," "Tonight" from West Side Story, "Gloria" from the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and a a German happy birthday song are some of my favourites for this purpose!

    I too know what you mean about the smacking and I'm totally on-board about the alternatives and how it's ultimately damaging to connection in the relationship, and that it backfires since the kids imitate us.

    As to juggling it all, I just finished reading "A Pressure Cooker Saved My Life" by Juanita Phillips, and what can I say, I ordered a pressure cooker just yesterday. What a book! Most highly recommended.

    Thanks for a wonderful and thoughtful blog post once again!

  4. Oh dear Alison. Your honesty, at times, is painful. I so remember those times. I have been there....thanks again for being so honest and, at times, raw. It is so healing for so many people--we are all violent because we want to control things. I often say that I was such a competent woman before I had children. I still want to control. Now with teenagers, I try it with yelling, and it is as frustrating and inept as smacking. Please know how much I appreciate you and your honesty. B

  5. Hi Rosie, The mothers at my choir rave about slow cookers, so that's what we use here! So glad I'm not the only crazy lady singing loudly at her kids at moments of crisis...

    And Brenda - I think some of the problem is not just that we want to control, but that it's for good reasons: a toddler wants to run on the road, a four year old to hop in the bath before I've checked the temperature, a teenager to go out with a heap of revolting friends. We want to protect our kids when their mistakes might permanently scar them - and an imagination like mine sees every destructive possibility - but there are times when they don't want to be protected. So then in our attempts to keep them safe we hurt them instead. It makes me weep. Al.

  6. Just read a post by a friend at on this topic - cool :) I posted a comment about this post on there and now I've posted a comment on this post about here - hope nobody minds! :)

  7. Thanks Rosie for that link - it's terrific - maybe it's a theme for a few people's Lenten practices! A nice synchronicity.

  8. Your post has made me sob. It's reminded me of my own smacking moment... and I think I'm pre-menstrual today so I'm up for a good sook.

  9. Hi VeggieGobbler, Healing tears, I hope! Nothing like a good cry I always say, washes everything clean and we start again.

  10. I hate sitting alongside a bath too.


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