Despite our best efforts, we’re inevitably going to screw up sometimes when trying to raise a family.
We may say the wrong thing to our kids or react poorly to something they do. Other times, we mistreat or mishandle a situation with someone else, like a partner, in front — or in earshot — of our children.
HuffPost asked parenting experts to share some of the common relationship mistakes that parents inadvertently model to their kids. Note that if these behaviors sound familiar, there’s no need to beat yourself up. Instead, you can turn them into teachable moments and try to act more mindfully moving forward.
“If I could give parents perspective: Embrace your mistakes. They are inevitable and provide an opportunity to grow and learn, which is how we develop parenting wisdom,” said clinical psychologist Claire Nicogossian, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.
Mistake No. 1: Snapping At Your Partner When You’re Stressed
We’ve all been there: You’re racing to meet a work deadline, your kid is hangry, the fridge is empty, you need to leave for baseball practice in 15 minutes — and then your partner forgets that they were supposed to pick up dinner tonight. It’s no wonder that your patience is thin and you lose your temper. But our kids notice how we behave under stress, so bringing more mindfulness to how we react in these tense, everyday moments should matter.
“Children observe when we are reactive to stress, conflict, pressure or exhaustion, snapping at our family members, partners and spouses,” said Nicogossian, who is the author of “Mama, You Are Enough: How To Create Calm, Joy, and Confidence Within the Chaos of Motherhood.” “In turn, they begin to internalize or learn how to respond and react in similar situations.”
However, when you learn strategies to manage your emotions — breathing exercises, grounding techniques or mindfulness practices, to name a few — and implement them in your daily interactions, you’re showing your child how to do the same.
Mistake No. 2: Trying To Hash Out A Disagreement When You’re Heated
Couples may feel the need to resolve the argument at hand ASAP — even if they’re not in the right frame of mind to have a productive discussion. That sense of urgency actually comes from being in a dysregulated fight-or-flight state, said clinical psychologist Laura Markham.
“We think we are threatened with a loss if we don’t take action right now to win this conflict,” she told HuffPost. “But when we are in that state, our partner looks like the enemy. We forget we are on the same side. We can’t possibly see their perspective or be willing to change ourselves.”
And the conversation tends to devolve into a shouting match, which isn’t good for the couple or their kids.
“The research is clear that when parents shout at each other, their children get anxious,” said Markham, the author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.” “It’s also not what we want to model for our children about how to express our needs or how to solve conflicts.”
Instead, the best thing you can do is recognize and verbalize that you need to take a break. Then, you can revisit the conversation when cooler heads have prevailed.
“Summon up all your compassion and take care of yourself so you feel better, rather than stewing about how they’re wrong and you’re right,” Markham said. “Then, don’t avoid the issue. Write it down. Maybe keep a running list posted inside a cabinet door in the kitchen, and have a regular time at the end of the day or on Sunday morning when you talk about issues that came up this week.”
That way, your kids see that their parents don’t always agree (normal!) but they’re still able to be kind to each other and constructively work things out, Markham added.
Mistake No. 3: Not Making Up In Front Of The Kids
Sometimes, your kids are going to see you fight and raise your voices at one another. When this happens, it’s critical that you make up in front of them too, “with affection and forgiveness,” Markham said.
“If you can course-correct after snapping at your partner, that’s ideal,” she said. “But even if it’s the next day, be sure to share with your kids that you resolved the situation.”
It might look something like this, Markham said: “Remember when Dad and I disagreed about whether it’s time to buy a new car? We got pretty mad, I know. But I want you to know that we’re working it out. We always do, because we love each other and our relationship is more important to us than any disagreement. You know that you can be mad at someone and love them at the same time, right? We still aren’t sure yet about the car. I’m worried that our car is breaking down a lot. Dad is worried about spending money on a car right now. It’s a hard decision. We’re going to keep talking about it. Sometimes you have to think and talk for a long time before you can make a good decision that works for everyone.”
It’s OK if you haven’t reached a point of resolution yet; many of the issues that couples fight over take time to work through. Just showing your child that you two respect one another’s points of view and are committed to figuring it out is powerful.
After the argument, take time to check in with your child about what they saw. Don’t try to minimize what happened or their feelings about it.
“Ask them to share their thoughts, feelings and reactions, and ask if they have any questions you can answer,” Nicogossian said.
If you resorted to name-calling, spoke in a harsh tone or exhibited otherwise less-than-exemplary behavior, say so. Then talk with your child about what you need to work on.
“Kids often have a perception that adults don’t have to continue to learn and grow,” Nicogossian said. “And, in reality, this is a lifelong process and what it means to be human: to be ever evolving, growing and developing wisdom along the way.”
Mistake No. 4: Blaming Your Partner Instead Of Taking Responsibility
When your child sees you getting defensive and pointing fingers at one another instead of owning up to your mistakes, it sends the message, “I can do the same,” Nicogossian said.
“In conflict, there are often three truths: yours, mine and the accuracy of what truly happens,” she said. “Finding the truth can be challenging, which is why listening to each person’s perspective and working to resolve conflict and maintain healthy boundaries, security, and safety and trust in a relationship needs to be the priority over the need to be ‘right’ or ‘win’ during the conflict.”
Admitting where you’ve been wrong isn’t easy. But it’s a critical skill — in romantic relationships and life in general — to model for your child. And you can’t do it when you’re emotionally overloaded.
“In order to take responsibility for your actions, you need to be in a calm emotional state where reason and the rational mind are in balance with your emotional mind,” Nicogossian said.
Mistake No. 5: Not Communicating Your Needs Clearly
When you’re exhausted and frustrated, it feels easier to stew in silence or rattle off a list of your partner’s shortcomings than it is to calmly state what you need from them.
“All too often, we enter into discussions with others without a clear idea of what we need in order to be a happier person or parent,” said clinical psychologist Jazmine McCoy, who goes by @TheMomPsychologist on Instagram. “Instead, take time to self-reflect. And when it comes time to communicate, state your needs without [starting with the word] ‘you.’”
“The research is clear that when parents shout at each other, their children get anxious.”
– Laura Markham, clinical psychologist
It’s better to use “I” statements that focus on how you feel and what you need, rather than accusatory “you” statements that focus on how your partner is falling short.
One example: “Hey, I could really use some phone- and TV-free time to connect with you after the kids go to bed.”
“Modeling clear communication that is not demanding or criticizing will help your child learn this skill, too,” McCoy said.
Mistake No. 6: Using All-Or-Nothing Language
Another bad habit that couples slip into? Speaking in absolutes, like “you always do this” or “you never do that.” This kind of all-or-nothing, shame-inducing language is rarely accurate and immediately puts your partner on the defensive.
“During conflict, avoid extreme language and lumping many situations into one statement,” McCoy said, offering examples such as “you never help out with the kids” and “we don’t connect anymore.”
“Rather than launching into generalities or the history of the behavior, look to the future and be specific,” she added. “‘I want to talk to you about what happened when you came home tonight.’ Having the same approach with our children is important, too.”
Mistake No. 7: Holding The Kids To A Different Standard Than You Hold Yourselves
According to pediatric psychologist and parent coach Ann-Louise Lockhart, this might look like parents telling their children not to interrupt, yell or use hurtful language with others when they do it to each other all the time.
“Those double standards are confusing to kids and model a very different expectation than what is stated,” said Lockhart, the owner of the A New Day Pediatric Psychology practice.
When you catch yourself acting in a way that contradicts what you try to instill in your children, stop, notice and acknowledge it out loud, Lockhart said.
“Call out the behavior and course-correct in the moment,” she said. “If you realize it after the fact, take ownership and responsibility. If your child isn’t present for the realization or repair, revisit it with them and let them know what you noticed and what you did to make it right.”