Before deciding to become parents, couples may discuss how they hope to raise their children: what they value, their thoughts on how much screen time to allow, or what traditions they want to pass on to the next generation. They may discuss the number of children they hope to have. In all of these conversations, little attention may be paid to talking about how to handle the most challenging moments of parenting.
This makes perfect sense: we are often overly optimistic that we will “do things differently” or that our newly formed families will be somehow free of stress and drama. What happens to the couple relationship when they find this isn’t the case? How can couples push back against the strain of parenting a ‘difficult‘ child?
I italicize ‘difficult‘ to highlight the meaning of this term: children (as they are people!) will all be challenging at one time or another. However, some children may struggle with more serious emotional or behavioral issues. These could develop organically or be the result of a family transition or trauma. However these challenges arise, the whole family is impacted. In this time of family crisis, it is crucial that the parents remain strong in their relationship. The following are five tips for parents facing such a critical dilemma:
1. Be on the same page
Talk with your partner often to understand what they are thinking and feeling. Develop a game plan to help one another stay on the same page: in the heat of the moment, it is all too easy to lose your temper or see your child’s behavior as a personal attack. Having a game plan ahead of time can help you to stay grounded in challenging moments.
2. Use your support network
Too often, parents may hide their children’s difficulties due to embarrassment, shame or stigma. Perhaps they feel guilty for their role in the problem. It is important to push back against these feelings and ask for help. When a grandparent offers to babysit for a few hours, say “yes”. Allow friends to visit and tell them how things are going. Connect with your child’s teachers and coaches to develop a community of support. Banding together will provide more opportunities for successfully navigating the hard moments.
3. Remember to prioritize connection
I often hear from the couples I work with that after working all day, parenting, running errands, finding time to make dinner and clean up, they are physically and emotionally drained. When I tell them they have to find time to connect with one another, they look at me like I’m crazy! However, research shows that doing small things often has an overwhelmingly positive impact on relationships. Remember to kiss one another when you leave or come home; spend a few minutes cuddling before bed; thank your partner for things they do; send a cute text message reminding them how much you care. These small acts of love make a huge difference! Read more about small things often here.
4. Express frustrations and fears
Be open with one another about your concerns for your child. Allow space to grieve the loss of the child you hoped for, so you can better accept the child that you have. Talk about the real challenges you face and how hard it is to stay patient with your child. Talking these things out together will better help you to remain calm in the face of your child’s behaviors, so you can avoid lashing out and making the situation worse.
5. Know when to seek professional help
Be open with one another about when the behaviors are no longer manageable for you. Whether it’s seeking couples therapy to have space to work out issues, or seeing a family therapist to work with everyone, it’s important to turn to professional support if things feel too overwhelming. Think of it as another way of expanding your support system! You will learn better strategies for coping with distress, as well as how to better help your child work through their issues in a healthier way.
Deirdre Cosgrove, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Pennsylvania and is certified in ecosystemic family therapy. Deirdre has extensive experience working with children and their families. The beginning of her career was spent supporting the families of high risk youth by providing intensive in-home therapy. Deirdre practices in Philadelphia supporting couples, families, and individuals and especially skilled at supporting families through very difficult or crisis situations. Deirdre guides her clients through a process which brings them a sense of balance and harmony.