Q. My wife and I are in the habit of criticizing each other in front of our children. She calls me stupid and I call her crazy. Sometimes I tell her in a negative way that she is just like her mother. She questions everything I do, insinuating I’m not doing something right when there is no one right way. I guess I criticize her, too, in retaliation for her criticizing me. Do you think our conduct in front of the children is affecting their behavior?
A. Of course when parents are openly criticizing each other it affects their children. I saw a notice in Spanish when I was in Cuba recently: “Recuerda, eres el espejo para tus hijos,” which translates into “Remember, you are the mirror for your sons and daughters.” When I was working in a residential treatment center for children with behavioral problems, it wasn’t a surprise to find the parents demonstrating the same behaviors as we saw in the children. My advice is simple: behave in a way you want your children to behave. And I might add: behave in a way that helps them feel secure. Here are some suggestions for you and your wife.
- Begin to recognize when you are tempted to call your spouse something derogatory and imagine a stop sign in front of you, urging you to stop and think about this.
- Instead of derogatory name-calling, use words like, “Right now, I don’t quite agree with you. Perhaps we could discuss this.”
- Compliment your spouse in front of the children at least once a day.
- When you disagree, model some problem-solving for the children so they learn this rather than blaming and criticizing. If you are not familiar with problem-solving, it involves identifying the problem, exploring possible solutions (and the consequences of each) and then selecting what appears to be a good solution. While the schools teach this skill, it is helpful to see it modeled at home.
- Encourage your children to be polite and respectful to their peers and to adults in their lives. These behaviors help them succeed more in life and relationships than criticizing and name-calling.
- Work on your marital relationship as you provide a role model for this type of partnership. It is also reassuring for children to see that their parents like and respect each other. I’m sure your children have friends with divorcing or divorced parents. These peers may share their struggles and fears with your kids. People with parents who like each other tend to feel very lucky.
Dr. Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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