Just as it takes many tools to build a physical home, parents need many skills to build a strong foundation of good middot, character traits. Anger and criticism are not building tools; they destroy people’s sense of self-worth, trust and security.

Lia was a student of mine years ago who enthusiastically put my ideas into practice. She used my tools and techniques to help her children face loss and frustration, express their emotions and build their self-esteem. Despite the fact that her hot-tempered husband often exploded angrily, these tactics worked beautifully on the younger children, helping them control their negative impulses. Sadly, her oldest, Sharon, was already a teenager when her mother introduced my ideas, and she took after her father, sarcastic and condescending at home but well-loved and virtuous to outsiders.

Anger and criticism are not building tools

When Sharon married Eli, they decided that they would have none of Lia’s “touchy-feely, psychological nonsense,” as she called it. They declared, “Children must be obedient without prizes, charts or notebooks.” Their oldest, Mike, was barely two when they began to spank him for being “disrespectful.” This included failing to put his toys away instantly, not looking in their eyes when they scolded him, dropping a bit of food on the floor, or not falling asleep easily when they put him to bed. To teach him a lesson, he was sent to bed without food, given long timeouts, and sometimes locked in a dark room for hours or made to stand outside in the freezing cold.

They viewed themselves as very devoted parents who were educating their children properly. They did act loving, as long as Mike complied instantly, and they spanked and punished only when necessary. Sometimes they would buy him a toy and refuse to let him play with it because he had been “bad.” There it was, on top of the refrigerator, where he could look at it, but not touch it, to remind him of his lack of respect. The power struggles escalated; the angrier they got, the more defiant Mike became.

Mike is now ten. When frustrated, he terrorizes his seven younger siblings, hits his mother, or destroys possessions in the home. He sometimes refuses to eat, bathe or dress, which makes his parents even angrier. Threats of withdrawing food no longer work, as he can refuse to eat for days. As for hitting, he learned that he can hit back harder. He doesn’t care if he dies, and often runs away or darts into the street heedlessly. When I suggested to Lia that she help build Mike’s confidence by phoning him each day and talking about his victories, the parents insisted that she would not be welcome in their home if she continued. Sharon said, “With a house full of children and the stresses of life, I have no time for Adahan nonsense.”

When Mike’s teachers complained that he was violent with his peers, sullen and uncommunicative, the parents consulted a psychiatrist, determined to find which psychiatric meds would make him calm and compliant. They seemed so devoted that the doctor saw only a disturbed child, not the background which produced his misery.

Anger is truly expensive. It seems to work like magic with little children, getting them to clean up, go to bed, be quiet, and pretty much do anything parents want. But the “angry, short way” is actually the very long way. Brain research shows that a child’s brain development is affected not only by physical abuse or neglect, but also by chronic verbal violence between parents, even when the child is asleep. Mike has learned to hate himself and to fear people.

A high-conflict home teaches children that the world is not safe and that people are dangerous. When parents are abusive, children inevitably becomes violent toward themselves or others, for they have learned that this is what relationships are all about—hurting and being hurt. They keep pushing their parents’ buttons, proving to themselves that their parents cannot be trusted. Some turn to addictions for soothing, since a computer, chocolate or alcohol will never be angry, rejecting or disappointing—the opposite, the addiction welcomes you with open arms, offering an illusion of “love” in the form of a fake connection.

So, what can we do when kids push our buttons, or we feel frazzled, exhausted, overwhelmed and irritated? Anger is hard-wired into our brains; as infants, we cry when we are hungry, bored or irritated. Even as adults, our “baby brain” puts up a big fuss whenever we feel deprived physically or emotionally. What can we do when kids push our buttons?But as adults, we can make new choices and override the primitive brain. The next time you feel anger, do this:

  1. Feel the pain. You are human. Raising kids is hard. Don’t deny that you feel upset, angry, betrayed, disappointed, frustrated or hurt. Name the loss. Children cause physical losses, such as the loss of comfort, privacy, space, structure, cleanliness, order, safety, time or sleep. They can cause emotional losses, such as the loss of love, respect, self-confidence, recognition, validation, belonging, fairness, communication, or the fulfillment of a dream. If you name it, you can tame it!
  2. Thank G‑d. Think, “G‑d, You are causing this child to act this way right now to give me an opportunity to work on my middot. I can practice patience, maturity and compassion, or I can destroy my relationship and raise my blood pressure and cholesterol.”
  3. “Water” the positive. Whatever you water grows. Mike’s mother has already “watered” anger and hatred. The only way to avoid this is by talking constantly to children about your own and their victories. Keep a list on the fridge. Repeat their victories to friends and family members. Repeat the list at the Shabbat table. This teaches children that they are capable of self-control and are essentially good. G‑d forbid that they should internalize the message, like Mike, that “I am worthless, unloved and a failure.”

Doing this is like exercising a muscle. You get used to responding to stress and discomfort by focusing on solutions instead of acting like an enraged animal. It is important to remember that children only have a primitive, impulsive brain. Their prefrontal cortex, the problem-solving brain, is not fully developed until between 20–25 years of age. You can teach them self-control only if you praise them enthusiastically whenever they are obedient and cooperative, and by showing them how you practice self-control.

Children only have a primitive, impulsive brain

A bully thinks, “Anger motivates me to demand that my needs be met and my rights respected! I must get angry or people will deprive, disrespect and abuse me.” Don’t teach your kids to be bullies. If you cannot control yourself, have the humility to seek outside help before your children’s lives are ruined.

As a young mother, I wrote out a statement and put it in my siddur: “I will not open my mouth unless I have love in my heart.” We are told, “In the way a person wishes to go, he is given divine assistance” (Talmud, Makkot 10a). I witnessed many miracles in my own life. I could not always get others to cooperate or treat me with respect, but I maintained my sanity and sense of self-worth. And that was more important than anything I thought I needed at the moment. Try it! You’ll save a lot of money on therapists.

Names have been changed to protect privacy.