Writer and broadcaster

My husband smacks, grabs and pinches our children. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I am concerned about my husband’s attitude to managing the behaviour of our two young children. He is in many ways a good husband and father. We both want our children to grow up to be well behaved, polite and respectful to others, but my husband seems to fear that they will not unless he is very firm.

I care for them most of the time and feel that they are perfectly normal children. They have their moments but on the whole we have a lovely time and I don’t find their behaviour a problem. This is a view supported by both sets of grandparents. My husband goes for long periods without spending quality time with them. When he does, he starts to take issue with the slightest thing, leading to their behaviour being the main focus of our time together. He is completely unreasonable in what he considers a suitable punishment. He does not know it but if he has smacked them, I tell them I don’t think he should have done it because I don’t want them to think it is right. I do talk to him about his attitude and for a while he might be a bit more positive, but he seems to have several unshakeable beliefs with which I strongly disagree.

He believes that children should be afraid of their father and need to be dealt with harshly if they misbehave. He sees nothing wrong with smacking, grabbing, dragging them by the wrist, pinching, cuffing or jabbing them in the ribs with his finger and reprimanding them verbally in a way that I can only describe as nasty. 

When he has been in a good mood for a while, is more positive and uses treats they start to trust him and are affectionate, wanting to spend time with him. They seem very keen to love him, but their confidence in him just keeps being knocked. 

I found your letter increasingly difficult to read. What started off seeming like two different parenting styles quickly became behaviour, from your husband, which I thought was abusive and, in parts, possibly criminal, even falling under section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, “cruelty to persons under 16”.

I think your husband is confusing fear for respect, bullying for strength.

I wonder if he has thought beyond childhood? There will come a time when your children’s fear will turn to anger and later, possibly, hate. There will come a time when he is the weak one; will he be happy, then, with how he has taught them?

Ryan Lowe, a child and family therapist, says: “The extremity of his punishments with even very young children, leads me to believe that he is either acting from experience of his own childhood or from some extreme anxiety about his children, possibly both.”

Please note that this is not a justification for his behaviour.

What was your husband’s childhood like? How was he parented?

“What,” asks Lowe, “was he afraid of in himself as a child? Did he have strong impulses that he is afraid his children will enact? Was he afraid of his father and this is the only reason he didn’t act on his feelings? If so, if he could see that some of his strong feelings and impulses were probably the result of the control and fear that his father had over him, rather than the other way around, it would help.

The other possibility is that his parenting was the opposite, lax and uncontained, without boundaries, and this made him feel unsafe, so he would like to do it differently with his children.”

Your husband can only reach a different level of understanding of children, and of himself, by doing a lot of soul-searching. I hope that he will seek help. I understand, however, how hard it is to get him to accept that and to seek help, and he may never change. This, Lowe suggests, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek help and support to help you (via your GP or childpsychotherapy.org.uk).

I know this goes against popular opinion, but I would undermine my husband in front of the children if he acted like this towards them. Nothing in your letter leads me to believe that your husband is abusive towards you (if he were, I would not recommend confrontation). I would want my children to know that his behaviour is not acceptable, that I stand by them, that I protect them. I don’t believe in a united front at all costs.

I hope that with help your husband can come to understand that a parent is doing a good job by having appropriately behaved children, rather than blindly compliant ones. You may find this article I wrote previously, helpful.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 26 September 2014.