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My Daughter Is Afraid of Her Father

Image Source: Kim Zapata
Image Source: Kim Zapata

“No tell Daddy,” my daughter whimpered. “Please. Pleeeeeeaaaaase?

Her glassy eyes and puppy pout softened me, and I squatted down beside her.

“But why? Why can’t I tell Daddy, baby?”

“Because Daddy’ll be mad. And … and … because Daddy scares me.”

My daughter sobbed hard and loud. So hard she couldn’t speak. So hard she couldn’t catch her breath. And while her tears broke my heart, I was strangely thankful for them, because they kept her from seeing the pain on my face; the fear on my face. They kept her from seeing how disgusted I was by those three little words.

But after taking a moment — and a long, deep breath — I grabbed her little body and pulled her close.

“It’s OK baby,” I told her. “Daddy may be mad, but I promise he won’t be scary. OK?”

“You sure?”

I could tell by the sound of her voice she didn’t believe me. Doubt was written all over her face.

“I’m sure,” I said, and then I hugged her. I held her firmly and tightly and as long as I could, and then I put her to bed.

Daddy scares me. Daddy’s scary. Please. No. Please.

Her words reverberated in my head for a long time. Hours after she went to bed, and days after the “incident” occurred, they still clung there. Because her words were once my words. I knew each and every thing she was feeling.

Make no mistake: My father wasn’t a bad man. Not by a long shot. But he was the presence — that presence — which my brother and I were taught to be afraid of.

“Just wait until your father gets home. Just wait until he hears what you did,” my mother would say.

Of course, my Dad had every right to be pissed. I was acting up; I was acting out; I wasn’t listening to my mother, and I was making up stories. On one occasion, my brother and I were tossing my mother’s ceramic cocker spaniel statue like a football when it dropped — and shattered. Then we lied. Well, I lied.

I didn’t want my father to know what I had done, because I didn’t know what he would do. Would he scream? Yell? Would my offense warrant the belt? I never knew, and that was worse than any punishment.

That hurt me more than any punishment, and so, at the mention of these words, I would beg my mother for forgiveness. For secrecy. I would shake and cry. And, sometimes, I would hide. For what felt like hours, I would hide.

But why was my daughter so scared? I had never said those words. I would never say those words. What had we done to make her afraid?

I didn’t know; and I still don’t know. But I do know that hearing them cut me. It gutted me. Hearing them broke my heart.

Ironically, my husband was far less concerned with this statement than I was. In fact, when I sat down with him that evening, he simply responded with, “Well, she should be.” (His reasoning was that since he was afraid of his father, and I was afraid of mine, her reaction was OK. It was normal.)

“Besides,” he said, “she needs to have more fear in her.”

But I vehemently disagree. I refuse to use scare tactics to teach my daughter lessons. I refuse to use fear as a disciplinary pawn, and I think being “afraid of your father” is a cop out.

May my opinion change in the future? Possibly. My daughter is only 3 1/2 years old, and I know I was one hell of a pre-teen myself, but I don’t want it to. I want to set a precedent now — for my daughter and for myself — so we can enter the tween and teen years with trust and understanding.

So here are four alternative disciplinary actions I’ve implemented which seem to be working for myself and my toddler:

1. Actions = Consequences.

One of the most effective disciplinary tactics — in our family, anyway — is really quite basic: Actions equal consequences. But what does this mean? Well, in short it means that when my daughter does something “not nice” or “out of line,” wrong or flat-out disrespectful, I sit her down and explain to her why her behavior was inappropriate. Then I give her an ultimatum: “If you scream like that/throw your toys/hit the cat again, I will take away XYZ,” I say. “Do you understand?”

Of course, she always says she does. (What kiddo wouldn’t?) But that doesn’t always mean the threat of an ultimatum works. Nope. Sometimes it means she loses privileges. Other times it means she loses toys, and yet other times it means she loses out on parties and playdates with friends. Does she get upset? Absolutely. However, she is the one driving her actions, she is the one making these decision, and when push comes to shove, if she loses out on fun things and toys it is because she made that choice. My daughter decided that yelling at mommy was more important than M’s birthday party.

2. Counting to three.

This disciplinary action works much like the previous one, and is probably one we’ve all tried: “Amelia, you have until the count of three to stop running/put on your pants/stop eating fistfuls of parmesan cheese,” I might say. “If you don’t, you will loose XYZ. 1 … 2.”

However, I use this approach when the offense is lesser — and when there is really no solid life lesson I want to impart. (Sure, wearing pants is important, but it isn’t life or death.)

3. Deep breathing.

A recent edition to my disciplinary repertoire is deep breathing, and the reason is twofold: It helps my daughter and it helps me. You see, my daughter is highly sensitive. She whimpers and whines and can get so caught up in a crying fit she forgets to breathe. She literally cannot catch her breath, and while we are working on talking about our feelings — she now tells me when she is sad or angry and why — we are also practicing mindful breathing. I will work her through taking a deep breath in and then taking a deep breath out.

And guess what? Within two breaths (maybe one) the meltdown is over, the tears have stopped, we are both more focused and calm, and life resumes as usual.

4. I keep it short, sweet, and consistent.

Not only are toddler attention spans short, cognitively speaking kids of that age do not have the comprehension to understand everything we say and/or ask for. (And I would know: I am guilty of talking over/above my daughter.) Dr. William Coleman, professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School, suggests speaking in short, repetitive phrases while incorporating vocal inflections and decisive facial expressions. No. Don’t do that. That hurt. That’s not nice. No thank you.

However, none of these approaches, tips, and tricks will work if they aren’t applied regularly and consistently. According to Claire Lerner, LCSW and director of parenting resources with Zero to Three,”If your reaction to a situation keeps changing — one day you let your son throw a ball in the house and the next you don’t — you’ll confuse him with mixed signals.”

All that said, there are sadly no foolproof ways to discipline your child, and what has worked for my family may not work for yours. However, “fear rearing” may not be the best way, especially when there are other ways to discipline your child right without causing them angst and anxiety.

And when it comes to my daughter, I’m determined to avoid it at all costs.

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