I’ve watched parents raise children for 30 years (and raised four of my own), so I know how hard it is.
Here, I share a question that came to me as a pediatrician, as well as my answer to this parent.
“What do I say to my children now that they’re old enough to see my husband’s flaws?” asked one desperate mother.
I hope this is helpful and insightful for other parents who may have wanted to ask the same question — and who will appreciate some guidance.
Dear Dr. Meg,
Thank you for your wonderful words of wisdom via your site and your books. In reading “Strong Mothers, Strong Sons,” I grew to understand even more the importance of building up the relationship between my children and their father, and of building him up in their eyes. I try to do that by not bad-mouthing him, by giving him chances to shine with them, and by pointing out his good qualities.
But what do you advise me to do when they see behavior in him that is not good, and they are now old enough to recognize it, point it out to me, and ask me about it? My husband is a good man at heart, but his go-to communication style with our children (our daughter is 14; our son is 12) is to shut them down when he is correcting them.
For example, tonight my daughter, who is entering high school in the fall, was saying she didn’t need our input regarding a course selection matter. My husband and I both agreed that while our daughter is very responsible, we would still need to offer guidance in her course choices.
My daughter countered excitedly and then my husband said, in a harsh tone, “Let me tell you something. As long as we’re paying the bills for your school and you’re living in this house, we will have a say in what you do.” I tried to step in, respectfully, and bring our communication with her back to the fact that we are her parents and God gave us to her to guide her. (I know that I should’ve waited to talk about it with him later instead of stepping in in front of our daughter, but I could see her crumbling.)
Well, my daughter shut down and left the room with a sad look on her face. I pointed out her sadness and that she was upset to my husband. He said he was not upset and that he is the father and a father’s way is more direct and that she needs that balance between us. I told him that while I agreed with that, his way with her tonight shut her down. He did not agree.
“He’s bullying you,” said Dr. Meeker. “You can’t control his emotions but you can insist that he speak to you differently.”
As I was telling my daughter good night, she was very upset. She said, “Mom, I am so angry. Dad is mean all the time and then he has these bursts of niceness that confuse me. Then I feel bad for being mad at him.” She went on to say she couldn’t be herself around my husband, that he expects everyone to be perfect, and that he is mostly mean and thinks he’s always right.
I told her that her dad loves her very much and that, sadly, he doesn’t see that he is being mean, and maybe it’s because he is tired from working so hard. I also told her he is a good person at heart and he has challenges, like all of us do. I also told her that it is OK to be angry because her dad could’ve handled the situation better. But even so, I could tell that she felt conflicted because she loves her dad, but can’t express herself to him when he makes her angry or she disagrees with him.
Dr. Meg, with all of my husband’s good traits, the truth is that he can be negative, mean, and harsh. Life in general, and his job specifically, stress him out, and he complains about his job almost every day. He is very high maintenance emotionally.
He can be very harsh with me, but I back down when the children are around because I don’t want them to see how he explodes. Which leads me back to the question: What do I say to my children now that they’re old enough to see my husband’s flaws (and I know I have mine, too) in his parenting, marriage, and overall life skills?
When he gets angry with me, out of earshot of the children, he shuts me down immediately and then will sometimes escalate to cursing at me, telling me he hates being married to me, and that he will leave me as soon as the children are gone. The next morning he might pout a bit, but he’ll go back to being his nicer self and won’t apologize for his outbursts. That said, he is a good man deep down, but he is immature.
What should I say to my children about their father? I don’t want to destroy their view of him, but the relationship between him and our children as it is now — especially for my daughter who is conscientious and sensitive — is heartbreakingly distant. Thank you so much for all you do to help families, Dr. Meeker.
You are in a difficult situation and one I am sad to say many women find themselves in. Your husband has serious anger/rage issues, which probably stem from his childhood. I have personally known men very much like your husband and have some suggestions for you.
First, let’s look at his treatment of you. Yelling, telling you that he is not going to stay married once the children are gone, and saying other cruel things without apology aren’t acceptable. He’s bullying you. You can’t control his emotions — but you can insist that he speak to you differently. Men bully until they are told to stop. I recommend that you firmly tell your husband that you aren’t going to tolerate his cruel speech to you anymore. If he does this again, you will walk out of the house. You simply won’t stay in the room while he is abusive. The only reason that you should not do this is if you fear that he will become violent. If there is any chance that he will hurt you or the children if you confront him, then you need professional help here. Find a good counselor who can help you work with him.
“Be strong enough to help him — but never make excuses for his bad behavior.”
It is important that you model to your children that you will not take abuse. If you allow him to abuse you verbally in front of the children, then your daughter sees it as acceptable behavior toward a woman and your son learns to treat women this way. This is something that you really need to put a stop to.
As far as what to tell your children, you need to be honest, tell them that what they think and feel is accurate when it comes to their father. They see his bad temper and if you downplay it, they feel that something is wrong with their assessment of it. Don’t let this happen. You can teach them that they can love their father very much but see his faults without disrespecting him. But the truth is, your husband’s temper will cause them to lose respect for him because he’s out of control. You can’t change this. They have the right to be angry and hurt and must be taught it’s OK to love someone and be angry at the same time. Teaching them to respect him as their father is not the same as teaching them to accept his bad behavior. They can love the man but hate his behavior.
Now, on to your husband. Telling him to change his behavior because it is unacceptable in your home probably won’t work. The best way to approach him is the following: When he is in a good mood (on vacation, over the weekend, etc.) tell him you want some time alone with him. Then, when you are both in good moods, tell him in a compassionate way that you love him very much but are worried about him. His anger and irritability are eating him alive.
Tell him that if doesn’t get some kind of help, that you are worried he will get very sick. He may be depressed or he may have a bipolar mood disorder. Tell him in a firm but loving tone that he needs to at least see his doctor because his stress and anger will take a toll on his heart and his health.
Then, I recommend that you find a doctor who will address his anger and emotional issues. Your husband may well be depressed — often depression comes out in men as rage and there is treatment for this. See if you can talk with his doctor before he goes in for a visit and if he will let you, go to the visit, too. Tell the doctor your concerns.
You and the children are hurting but the truth is, your husband hurts too. Be strong enough to help him — but never make excuses for his bad behavior. The reality is, if he doesn’t get his anger under control, he’s going to end up all alone one day with you and the children not wanting anything to do with him. Don’t threaten him with this, but know it and do everything that you can now to help him from imploding in the future.
Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.”