“Conflict is an opportunity to learn how to love each other better over time.”
Dr. John Gottman
Underlying our children’s behavior are often simple questions they want answered everyday…
Am I good? Do you love me? Will you keep me safe?
With partners, those questions are often the same…
Do you see me? Do you accept me as I am? Will you stay?
When someone gets upset, it’s not just about the anger or disappointment that’s on the surface. Often the upset has roots in the need for connection, support, love, understanding, and safety.
When we feel unsafe or misunderstood, we are more likely to get triggered.
We’re not only triggered by our children, we’re also triggered by the things our partners say and do–or our colleagues, parents, relatives or friends for that matter!
So if you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re yelling at your kid and your partner walks over and is angry or disapproving with you (and then everyone is upset), you’re not alone!
Parenting with a partner can be twice as hard if your child’s behavior is challenging.
When a child is aggressive, loud, or uncooperative, it rattles our nerves, it sets our alarm system off. We might handle it by going into fight (yelling), or flight (leaving the room). But those responses don’t just increase upset in our child; they can also trigger our partner into a similar protective or defensive state.
So here are some suggestions to make parenting with a partner easier:
1. Refrain from criticism when your partner is handling a tricky situation: Decide that you won’t criticize your partner or glare at them with a disapproving look when they are handling a difficult situation with your child. This can be hard, but it can be easier if you have a conversation outside of heated moments and discuss what would be most supportive for each of you.
I was working with a couple once and the father was triggered by his wife’s anger at their son. When he tried to help his wife manage a meltdown with their kid, he often made things worse by criticizing her angry tone. The mom said it would be better if he would gently put a hand on her shoulder and say, “how can I help”?
Have a discussion with your partner about what you need when things get heated with your child.
2. Self soothe when you’re flooded. If you’re in the throes of an argument with your partner, or you’re both trying, unsuccessfully, to manage your kid’s meltdown, and you’re getting angrier, or want to withdraw, that can be a sign that you’re flooded with feelings and it’s time to take a break. This is a good time for self-soothing.
Things that can help you reduce fight, flight, or freeze include walking, sitting and breathing, listening to music, and telling yourself, “I’m a good parent (or partner) who is really upset right now. This is not an emergency.”
You might want to tell your partner:
I’m feeling flooded, let’s take a break… Give me a moment, I’ll be back… Let’s agree to disagree here… Please stop…
It may take 20 minutes for you to feel soothed, but take the time and then come back to your partner.
3. Be clear about what you need. So often as parents, we put our own needs on the back burner. But that only makes us more resentful. Practice telling your partner what you need on a regular basis. Here’s a good sentence structure to get started:
I feel ___________________, I need_______________.
For example, “I’ve been feeling really overwhelmed lately. I need to make some time for myself this week and I need you to help with bedtime more.
It can be surprisingly hard to say what we need. It’s important to practice this!
4. Appreciate each other. We get so little appreciation for the hard work of parenting that It’s important to have more moments of appreciation than course corrections or criticisms. Here are some ways to do that:
- Carve out time for conversations every week and start with appreciation.
- Do three little acts of kindness each day for your partner. A sweet text, remembering to pick up their favorite food at the store, a sticky note of appreciation left on their computer…
5. Talk about your childhood. Sometimes it helps to hear about our partner’s early days to have more empathy for them and a better understanding of why they parent the way they do.Make time to talk to each other about what life was like when you were the age that your child is now.
6. People don’t trigger you, they trigger your trigger. I know it seems like it’s our partner’s or our kid’s fault when they do something that sets us off. And yes, their behavior can trigger you. But the roots of that trigger usually lie deep inside of us and often come from our early childhood experiences.
If you feel like your head is blowing off, that’s a good indicator that something old is being evoked. Our triggers usually point to what needs healing in us. We’re responsible for healing our triggers.
7. Arrange time for your partner to be alone with the children. It’s helpful for each parent to have alone time with the children. There may be some complaints from a partner who is struggling to manage 2 or 3 kids all-day Saturday on their own, yet it can help that parent (and the kids) feel more connected and closer when things go well when the other parent isn’t there.
8. Repair early and often. It’s important to repair with our children, but it’s also important to repair with a partner. Relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman, has a “Gottman Repair Checklist” with statements that can guide you through that conversation.
If you want a powerful repair process, I like the way Kyle Benson describes Gottman’s process of how to heal in the aftermath of a fight.
9. And lastly, I heard this recently from psychologist Becky Kennedy, (known as Dr. Becky)…
…when you wake up in the morning, ask your partner, “What do you need from me to feel loved today?”
If you do nothing else this week but ask your partner what they need from you to feel loved today, that’s a step in the right direction!
If you’re needing extra support with parenting (and life!) this summer, sign up for a free Calm and Confident parenting call so I can hear about the challenges you’re up against and we can discuss the best way to move forward.