When my husband and I are fighting or there is tension is between us, our teenage kids feel it. They often ask what’s going on and I’m not always sure how to answer their questions. I want them to be honest with me when I question them, but how do I respond appropriately to them so they don’t feel confused without giving them the details and struggles of our marriage. I want to build healthy relationships with all of them, but I worry I say too much or not enough at times. Do you have any suggestions?
I applaud you for tuning into the emotional world of your children. Children are keenly aware of the relationship climate in the home and count on our ability as parents to create healthy conditions. Even though your children are teenagers, they haven’t outgrown their need for stability in their home environment.
The reason we protect young children from adult drama and concerns is because they are completely powerless to do anything to change the outcome. Children are egocentric, which means they naturally believe everything relates back to them or their behavior. So, if they feel parental tension, they automatically believe it’s because of something they’ve done. This can leave children feeling more powerless, believing they have to do something to fix it.
When children are little, it’s critical to protect them from marital drama and strife. They simply can’t make sense of it. It’s scary to them to see mom and dad fighting. However, as children get over, seeing their parents work out difficulties is an important teaching opportunity in conflict resolution. As long as the discussions are respectful and productive, these experiences can help prepare teens for their own adult relationships.
As children mature, it becomes easier for them to separate themselves from what’s happening around them. Even though they continue to pick up on tension, they won’t automatically blame themselves as the cause. This opens up more opportunities to help them make sense of what they’re experiencing. My guess is that you’re concerned about burdening them with your relationship struggles. Regardless of what you decide to share with your children, it’s critical that you emphasize and reemphasize that they don’t need to fix anything in your relationship.
You don’t need to involve them in the details of what you’re working out with your husband. Your children actually don’t care as much about those details, but instead, care to know that everything is going to be okay. If you are actively working things out with your husband, then make sure your children know that you are committed to getting things resolved so there can be unity in the marriage. You can empathize with their concern that the tension might mean something deeper and, at the same time, reassure them that things always get worked out.
If they happened to hear specific details of an argument, there’s nothing wrong with asking them what they heard and follow up with any questions they may have about the topic. If it’s appropriate, feel free to answer their questions and let them know you’re working out the details.
Most importantly, help your children make sense of what they’re feeling when they bring these concerns up to you. For example, you can ask them what they fear or if they have concerns about your family. They may simply be curious about the topic or they may have legitimate fears about their own family stability.
Even though I think parental privacy is good for many high-conflict issues, I think there is great power in letting older children see parents struggle to align their hearts and minds around certain issues. We see examples of this in the Book of Mormon where Nephi and his brothers saw their parents work out their struggles. Alma the Younger was open with his sons about his own struggles. You don’t want to overwhelm your teens and cause them to feel responsible for your situation. But, it can be healthy for them to see you reach resolution in a unified way.
Make sure you apologize for any behavior that goes against your own values. If they heard you yelling, name-calling, or engaging in other unhealthy behaviors, make sure they hear from you directly that you don’t excuse this behavior. Let them know what they can expect from you in the future.
As long as your children don’t feel responsible or overwhelmed by the content of these discussions, their awareness of your marital struggles isn’t going to ruin them. It’s best to work these things out in private, but if they happen to hear things or see things, be direct with them and show them that you’ve resolved both their concerns and found unity again with your spouse.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.