Category Archives: General

Conflict’s bad for kids, right?

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When I spoke recently to a group of preschool parents on the topic of positive communication, one of the dads raised his hand:

“So if my wife and I are committed to communicating positively with each other and our kids, we should avoid fighting in front of them, right?”

Conflict has a bad rap in our culture, especially when it occurs between parents. It’s not unusual for us to avoid it, or shut it down as quickly as possible when it erupts, or assume we’re on the path to divorce if it’s a regular occurrence.

Truth is, not only is conflict unavoidable, it’s an important component of human relationships, romantic and otherwise.

Which is why I gave that dad the most straightforward response I could muster:

Yes and no.

Yes, there are some styles and topics of conflict that it’s best to avoid in front of our kids. No, it’s important to disagree in front of them, if we do so constructively, because that will teach them what positive conflict looks like.

Here’s a brief distinction between destructive and productive conflict:

Verbal and physical aggression certainly constitute destructive conflict, but they’re not the only forms. There are fight-topics and approaches to those topics that are also, ideally, off-limits it terms of exposure to our kids: avoid arguments about the kids, including disagreements around discipline, and don’t put your child in the middle (or let kids put themselves in the middle).

Destructive conflict also includes fights that aren’t productively resolved, those for which no apologetic, conciliatory or respectful words or behaviors are expressed, those without a genuine agreement to disagree, or a plan to revisit the topic at a later date, or other techniques designed to positively wind down the disagreement.

Constructive conflict, which is great for kids to witness, overhear or just plain sense, include disagreements where parents come to a resolution, in some instances a compromise, but without lingering resentment. Apologies, affection, a respect for differences, an understanding (though not necessarily agreement) of each other…all of these represent conflict at its best.

What to do if the first round was pretty destructive and your kids were home? Here’s one suggestion:

Make an agreement with your spouse to revisit the topic. Further agree that  you’re going to approach it calmly and that if either of you senses tension escalating, you’ll suggest a 5 minute break (or longer, if you’re really riled) to calm down. Keep at it until you find a way to close the conversation positively, which doesn’t mean you’re in agreement, but you feel respectful and, hopefully, possess increased understanding of each other’s perspectives.

You can do the above in front of your kids or behind closed doors. If it’s away from them, a great way to close the loop–i.e., a way to show them that the conflict’s been resolved–is to go and speak to them together.

Acknowledge that the way in which you fought about the subject at first was not helpful, but it’s natural for people to get mad at each other and, even, say hurtful things. If your kids are small (including if they’re infants and won’t understand the specific details you convey), consider acknowledging that your fight might have been scary for them.

Then, let your kids know that you’ve revisited the issue and resolved it, are feeling better about it, or each other, or however you want to phrase it. The less detail the better with small kids; what will have the most impact is the calmer energy between the two of you.

But if you’d like to let older kids in on your conflict resolution strategy for that fight, feel free to do so, as it will give them a specific example of ways to navigate a disagreement.

Another approach is to increase awareness of our conflict styles and try to avoid those that are most destructive. Check out my piece on conflict-styles for more information.

However we “do” conflict with our spouses, as long as we resolve disagreements positively, as long as we productively close the loop on an argument, even one that escalates beyond our own, and our kids’, comfort-zones, we’ll be modeling constructive conflict. Doing so will serve our children throughout their lives, and help our relationship satisfaction with coparents in the process.

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Can We Talk? Ways for Parents to (Re)Connect

Like most parents, I have a long to-do list on which any number of items get pushed from one day to the next and the next and…you get the idea. So instead of berating myself for playing that to-do game with a post for this blog, I thought I’d let you in on some of the to-do items I have been able to check off my list, including: Having a ton of fun being interviewed by SuperMommyNot.com founder, TV reporter Donna Tetreault. Donna, who has two young boys, and I had a great conversation, which was that much more fun because her cameraman was so jazzed by our discussion of parents’ relationships that he kept interjecting his own questions. The result? 4 short segments on Donna’s website, which ran a couple of weeks ago. In case you missed them, or one of these topics is near and dear to your heart and you’d like to take another gander, here are the clips:

“Can We Talk” Part 1: Reconnecting with Spouses
“Can We Talk” Part 2: Conflict & Communication
“Can We Talk” Part 3: Date Night & Other Strategies
“Can We Talk” Part 4: The Challenge of In-Laws

Check out my premier post on ParentMap!

I’m very excited to now be a contributing writer to ParentMap.com, an online resource for every stage of the parenting journey. Some of you might remember that I appeared on a panel exactly a year ago for ParentMap’s day-long event for expecting couples: BabyMap. I love celebrating my first anniversary as a ParentMap partner with a=this post. Click here to read it.   

Conscious Complaining: Getting to the Core of Relationship & Parenting Issues

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We all have complaints about our spouses and kids. Yet voicing them can easily lapse into blaming, judgment and criticism, which are toxic to our relationships.

How can we complain in a way that allows us to vent and stay positively engaged with those we’re complaining about?

Author Karla McLaren coined the phrase “conscious complaining” as a way to productively release some of our negativity. She suggests that we do our venting far away from those with whom we’re upset. Not by getting together with friends and reviewing a laundry list of grievances about our loved ones, but by tackling that list on our own.

Here’s my twist on McLaren’s conscious complaining technique:

1. Find a private space—away from prying  family eyes—and write down every complaint you have about your spouse and kid/s. Yes, every single one.

2. Then, rank them from “most irritating” to “least irritating.”

3. Read your list out loud. As silly as it sounds, voicing grievances—without worrying about hurting someone else’s feelings—is cathartic. Read your list out loud again, this time with feeling. If a complaint irritates you, say so. If it saddens you, admit it. If it frustrates, exhausts, alienates or infuriates you, this is the time and place to get it all out, if only with yourself.

4. Then, revisit your ranking to ensure it accurately reflects how you’re feeling now, after having had a chance to “kvetch” out loud.

5. Jot down your 3 most irritating complaints on a blank piece of paper. We’ll return to your Top 3 shortly.

I share McLaren’s belief in the importance of conscious complaining, but venting doesn’t easily translate into feeling close to the folks we’re upset with.

How can complaints about spouses and kids help us get closer?

When I was a kid, I loved scratch art: I’d draw random shapes and patterns with brightly colored crayons and, then, coat what I’d created with a thick layer of black. I remember staring at that drawing, a straightened paperclip in my hand, anticipating the rush of scratching blackness to release the colors underneath.

Our complaints are a lot like that layer of black crayon: dark, pervasive and seemingly impenetrable. Yet beneath our grievances are brightly colored desires that we believe, or fear, won’t see the light of day. How can we get to the colors?

Consider each of your Top 3 complaints separately and ask yourself:
What’s my dream or hope that’s being threatened, or that I fear will be ruined, because of the issue I’m complaining about?

Take Carolyn and her husband Seth* for example. Carolyn had become increasingly upset with Seth’s long workdays and habit of returning home  just as their three kids were getting ready for bed. The kids would get so excited to see their father that bedtime got bumped by hours, leaving them exhausted on the following school day.

When she brought this topic up in a session, Carolyn announced that she was going to forbid Seth from coming home from work near bedtime, given that his arrival was so disruptive of the kids’, and her own, routine.

I acknowledged her right to “lay down the law.” I also suggested that she tap into the dreams or desires at the core of her complaint. Why? To help her shift from criticizing her husband–she admitted she thought he was to blame–to communicating constructively with him.

When Carolyn started thinking about the core of her complaint, her personal yearnings emerged. As a stay-at-home mom, she gets so little time to herself that she hated losing nighttime hours. As the parent responsible for getting up early, preparing children’s lunches and readying them for school, her own sleep and her kids’ slumber are precious to her. She was upset about potential exhaustion and having to deal with her kids’ sleep-deprived moodiness.

When Carolyn was leaving, I encouraged her to keep thinking about the wants or hopes at the core of her complaint. Like scratch art, the more we dig into our complaints, the more our complex and colorful dreams get revealed.

What did she discover? That in addition to her personal yearnings, she wanted their kids to go to sleep earlier so that she could have more time to spend with Seth. She realized that she was really missing adult-time with her husband.

Instead of leading with a command that Seth not come home at bedtime, which he’d have likely experienced as a criticism, Carolyn opened their conversation by telling him how much she misses him and their alone-time. She also shared how hard it is for her to wrangle the kids when they’re sleep-deprived.

Guess what? Seth missed their time alone, too. They booked a date-night on the spot. Plus, he came up with the following bedtime strategy: Seth committed to trying to get home by 6 pm and, on days when he can’t, he’ll come home after the kids are down for the count, so as not to disturb their schedule.

By digging to the core of her complaint, Carolyn not only discovered compelling personal and relationship desires that were being compromised, but by sharing her discoveries with Seth, she increased her connection with her husband and they found a way to coparent more effectively.

Complaints aren’t always, or only, what they seem.

Our gripes often go hand in hand with criticism, judgment and blame. But if we get more conscious and constructive about them, and dig to their core, we just might reconnect with our dreams and desires.

There’s no guarantee that, if we share our yearnings with our spouses and kids, they’ll appreciate our desires or help us honor them. Worst case scenario, we’ll have found a constructive way to express what we want, without criticizing and judging the ones we love in the process.

Best case?  Our complaints will bond us further with our loved ones.

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* Names and details have been changed to protect client privacy.

Part II of my Interview with Parents with Angst

Alas, as much as the will is there, the blog-post I’ve been working on has yet to be finished. In the meantime, check out the second part of my interview with Parents with Angst. They posted it a while ago, but the ideas are timeless. You can find the interview here: http://bit.ly/GC5oNw 

How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Kids (& Parents!)

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Whenever I first start coaching parents, whether they’re rookies or veterans, I underscore a truism that most of us rarely think about:

Unlike most trades that demand flexibility, communication skills, commitment, significant effort, multitasking, intellectual & emotional dexterity, teamwork and long hours, being a spouse and parent are, often, jobs we tackle without formal training.

Plus, when our job descriptions as a spouse or parent change, which they always do in one way or another—e.g., kids move from preschool to grade school—there are no required mini-courses to supplement our skills, no downloads to upgrade our operating systems, just more on-the-job experience.

So in addition to some of the upsides of having spouses and kids (e.g., love), it’s no wonder many of us, at one point or another, find relationships or parenting (or both) confusing, disappointing, mystifying, and/or frustrating!

Granted, there are all sorts of relationship and parenting manuals out there—meaning, books—designed to help us, but many are hard to read, too long to fit into busy schedules, or they contradict each other.

One exception is Gerald Newmark’s How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children, a refreshingly simple (in the best sense), easy-to-read, intuitive (it just feels right) and inspiring book designed to help parents, teachers and communities raise kids who thrive well into adulthood. (If you’re a Kindle Member or Amazon Prime member, download the book free here.)

Newmark’s work has the power to save children’s lives and preserve their wellbeing. I’m convinced it can have that impact on parents’ relationships, too.

The 5 Critical Emotional Needs described by Newmark—feeling respected, important, accepted, included, and secure—are, also, tools to enhance parents’ emotional health and offer us a chance to “raise” ourselves, and our marriages, as we raise our kids.

Critical Need #1: To Feel Respected
“To be treated in a courteous, thoughtful, attentive and civil manner.”

Whether passed between spouses or from one to the other, disrespect—what relationship-expert, John Gottman calls contempt—is the #1 predictor of divorce. Contempt can be verbal (dismissive comments, sarcasm) or behavioral (ignoring, rolling eyes). Given the destructive impact of disrespect—and the poor relationship example it sets for kids—we’d all do well to practice respect.

Simply put: Ramp up being thoughtful, considerate and valuing spouses, even and especially when they do or say things with which we disagree.

Critical Need #2: To Feel Important
Helping spouses believe: “I have value. I am useful. I have power. I am somebody.”

Certainly, respecting spouses enhances their sense of being valued by us. So, too, does suspending judgment when they do things differently than we do.

As parents, we have many opportunities to let each other tend to our kids in our own way. If we assume there’s no one right way to do so—e.g., dress kids, play with them, feed them, etc.—and we encourage and support spouses to parent in his or her own way, we impart our trust in the value of their contributions and their power to make decisions and choices, even ones that contrast with our own.

Critical Need #3: To Feel Accepted
“To feel accepted as individuals in their own right, with their own uniqueness, and not treated as…objects to be shaped in the image of what [we] believe [our] ideal [spouse] should look like.”

I’ve written elsewhere about how objectifying our spouses and kids undermines our relationship with them. When we treat spouses as objects—which includes: trying to mold them into who we want them to be, instead of loving who they already are—we act insincerely, dwell on a desired future vs. the present at hand, and foster disconnection and mistrust.

Understanding that our spouses are different from us, and worthy of our acceptance and love not only despite, but because, of those differences, enhances friendship between us and fans the flames of intimacy. 

Critical Need #4: To Feel Included
“To be brought in, to be made to feel a part of things, to feel connected to other people, to have a sense of community.”

One of the surest signs that a relationship is strained is a persistent desire to spend time with our kids or friends or at work, instead of with our spouses. In lieu of collaborating, and working as a team, we avoid each other and foster bonds elsewhere.

In and of itself, turning to our children for connection and to create community is great. But when we do so as a substitute for connecting with spouses, we put undue pressure on our kids to fulfill us, and we forfeit relationship satisfaction in the process. Learning how to reconnect with each other, despite our differences, despite the demands of parenting, feeds our desire to feel included and an integral part of our family.

Critical Need #5: To Feel Secure
“Security means creating a positive environment where people care for each other and show it, where people express themselves and others listen, where differences are accepted and conflicts resolved constructively….”

Just as we’re not taught to be a spouse or parent, most of us lack skills to reduce conflicts or bypass them altogether. Yet, without know-how to resolve conflicts productively—e.g., to compromise out of choice vs. to appease each other—we often feel insecure in our relationships and unheard or rejected by spouses.

Given that 95% of conversations end the way they begin, one path to conflict-resolution is to become more aware of what we say, why we’re saying it, and the feelings that motivate us to broach a subject.

This can be especially useful if we want to tackle challenging topics. Before starting a conversation, take a moment to evaluate what you want to accomplish and what words might best help you reach your goal.

Every parent knows that our children are among our most inspiring and persistent teachers. They teach us to see the world in new ways, to look at our own childhoods for lessons we want to impart or avoid, to open our hearts wider than we thought possible.

Newmark’s 5 Critical Emotional Needs offer yet another way to learn, this time not from our kids, but with them. As we practice fulfilling their needs in our parenting and our relationships, we’ll all—adults and kids alike—grow up to be healthy and strong.

Discover how to thrive in your relationship & your parenting!

Babying Our Battles: How Can Kids Inspire Parents to Reduce Relationship Conflict?

I was recently leading a workshop for couples. Our topic was resolving disagreements about household and childcare roles and responsibilities, a subject I’ve posted about more than once (see http://wp.me/pZuta-dh & http://wp.me/pZuta-b5).

Given that parents’ household division of labor is among the Top 3 issues most of us fight about, it’s not surprising there was a lot of heated discussion among workshop participants. Moms were especially vocal about resentment that their husbands didn’t do more around the house, and that their childcare efforts focused on playing with their kids, but not tending to their other needs.

I pride myself on leading workshops that aren’t just helpful but also fun, so the evening included a lot of laughter and a good dose of silliness. But no matter how much we laughed, no matter how playful the mood, parents returned insistently to their feelings of frustration, concern or anxiety.

Until late in the evening, when our hosts’ 2 year-old son, Leo* toddled out of his room, weepy from a bad dream. He climbed into dad’s lap and fell back to sleep.

While our topic never changed, Leo’s arrival altered, indeed softened the Emotional Field (EF) in the room. EF is a Relationship Systems coaching term for the invisible yet discernible energy that always exists among a group of people, regardless of what they’re doing or saying (or not doing or saying).

Once sweet, vulnerable Leo entered our space in search of parental care, the EF shifted dramatically from irritability and frustration to tenderness and empathy. Had Leo been wide-awake and in a boisterous mood, I suspect the change in Emotional Field would have been different, though no less noteworthy.

I interrupted the discussion to note what I’d witnessed and ask participants what they’d noticed. They reported feeling less agitated and more hopeful about the topic than earlier in the evening. They agreed that there was something about Leo’s arrival—both in terms of how he was feeling and what his presence inspired in them—that altered their perspectives on the subject matter.

I joked that it would be great if we could bottle Leo’s energy—specifically, the impact he had on the adults in the room—and pull it out every time we argued with our spouses (or anyone else). I was only half-kidding.

How can we tap into the emotional “softening” and optimism that a small, vulnerable child can inspire in us, even when that child isn’t present, or our kids aren’t small and (obviously) vulnerable?

One option is to imagine conflict as tangible, something you can touch and hold. Think of a challenging issue with your spouse and, in your mind’s eye, consider:

What’s its shape? How large is it? What’s its texture? Temperature?

Now, imagine holding a napping newborn in your arms. Imagine that, as s/he slumbers serenely, this baby’s very being can reach out and reduce the intensity of the conflict, soften it, make it easier to resolve.

How does the conflict appear to you now? How might this newborn-mode inspire you to approach this issue differently going forward?

When my preschooler is upset—and open to being held—I wrap my arms around her and try to keep myself calm, both to support her and prevent my own discomfort from overwhelming either of us.

How might holding conflict itself, as if it were our child, help us better navigate disagreements with our spouses?

For some, imagining conflict as a tangible thing is hard to grasp. If that’s the case, we can shift attention from how a child’s energy can alter a disagreement to how we want to model conflict for our kids.

The desire to parent our children as best we can, as kindly and compassionately as possible, often inspires us to change (or try to change) behaviors and patterns that don’t serve us, or them, well.

We can mobilize this parenting impulse with relationship conflicts. If we imagine our kids—especially young ones—learning how to “do” conflict by watching us work things out with spouses, we’re inspired to become more conscious about the priorities and goals we set for conversations, not to mention our tone of voice and word-choice.

Bottom line: Whether we imagine them as our conflicts, or we think about them softening our disagreements, or we cast them as witnesses to our heated conversations with spouses, we can improve our conflict resolution skills by letting our kids inspire us.

How can your children inspire you to navigate conflict differently?

*Client names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.