Let’s face it – no one gets through childhood without experiencing some distress. Even in the most well functioning of families, there will be inevitable conflicts, stresses, and disappointments that impinge on a child’s happiness. Even if you could, it would be a mistake to try to shield your children from everything that can possibly hurt them, since one of the main tasks of childhood and adolescence is to learn how to understand and cope with conflict, pain, frustration, and so on. But depending on how you interact as a couple, you can either minimize or exacerbate the damage.
Let’s start with your child’s infancy. Research shows that even newborns are highly attuned to the language of emotions. Imagine yourself as the baby you were, lying in your crib and looking up at the two people who brought you into the world. How do they interact with one another? Are they smiling and gentle, or frowning, angry, silent? Everything we know about emotions and how to express them will be shaped by these early experiences. And as children grow, these primary experiences will continue to be either reinforced or modified.
It helps to remember that as parents, you are the CEOs of your family corporation. That means you have myriad roles and perform several functions:
As role models: Do your children see you arguing? How do they notice you resolve conflicts? Do you shout until one or both of you just can’t take it anymore, and walks away, leaving hurt silence in your wake? Or do you calmly disagree, using rational and empathic language, and work through the conflict in ways that leave each of you feeling heard by the other?
As a team: Are you more or less on the same page when it comes to parenting styles? Do the children play you off each other, knowing that they’ll get different responses to requests? No two people, as parents or in any other context, are going to be one hundred percent in agreement at all times; however, it’s important that the basics – in terms of discipline, permissions, and boundaries – are in place. And when there is disagreement, it pays for the children to know that parents are not inclined to overrule one another.
As equals: The division of labor and finances takes many different forms depending on each family’s circumstances. What is fair is what feels fair to both parties. It is essential – both within the couple and for children to see – that there is mutual respect for each person’s contribution, in whatever form that takes.
As rational beings: Your child is angry with you. You’re triggered, and react with hostility, withdrawal, punishment, escalation, tears – any of which has just made a bad situation worse. Remember that you are the adults in the room, literally. Acknowledge your child’s anger, point out what you think is the cause, and express sympathy for how he or she must be feeling. There is little to be gained by engaging a battle of emotions with a child.
As people in your own right: At the same time, you’re not a robot either, and as children mature, it is important that they understand their power to make others feel upset, happy, angry, amused, etc. – and that goes for partners as well.