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My wife and I have very different philosophies for raising children. She is the primary caretaker, as I work full-time and she stays home with our children. I don’t believe our children are in danger of being physically abused. However, she does things that I feel like humiliate and overwhelm our children. When I get home, it seems like the kids only want to be around me because they don’t connect with her as well. Our children are young still, but I don’t want this to become something that grows into a bigger problem when they’re teenagers. She has a lot going on in her life and I don’t know if she’s just stressed out with all these kids. We had all of our kids quickly and they’re pretty close in age. I’m not sure if I should just give her a break and not be so critical. The way I was raised was just so different. My mom was more nurturing and loving and I thought that’s how my wife would be with our kids. I have no idea how to bring this up with making her feel defensive and upset.
I think you’re wise to approach this carefully and sensitively with your wife. I’m certain she wouldn’t appreciate criticism about her parenting style, especially when she’s doing most of it alone throughout the day. At the same time, the safety of your children is something you need to discuss with her. You have a voice in the matter and need to find a way to address your concerns with your wife so your home is a safe environment for everyone.
Even though you report your wife isn’t being physically abusive to your children, any parenting approach that uses humiliation can be a form of emotional abuse. I’m not suggesting that she is abusive, but it’s important for you to look closely at the patterns so you can intervene if something more serious and damaging is happening to your children. All forms of abuse are damaging to children, even if your wife has good intentions. Researchers have identified the following behaviors as emotionally abusive[i]:
- Rejecting: The caregiver refuses to acknowledge the child’s worth and the legitimacy of the child’s needs.
- Isolating: The adult cuts the child off from normal social experiences, prevents the child from forming friendships, and makes the child believe that he or she is alone in the world.
- Terrorizing: The adult creates a climate of fear, bullies and frightens the child, and makes the child believe that the world is capricious and hostile.
- Ignoring: The adult deprives the child of essential stimulation and responsiveness.
- Corrupting: The adult encourages the child to engage in destructive and antisocial behavior, reinforces deviance, and impairs a child’s ability to behave in socially appropriate ways.
- Verbally Assaulting: The adult humiliates the child with repeated name-calling, harsh threats, and sarcasm that continually “beat down” the child’s self-esteem.
- Overpressuring: The adult imposes extreme pressure upon the child to behave and achieve in ways that are far beyond the child’s capabilities.
If any of these behaviors are happening in your family, it’s important that you take action to protect your children. The First Presidency recently reemphasized that any type of abuse creates “confusion, doubt, mistrust, and fear in the victims…and should be taken seriously and handled with great care.”[ii]
Again, I don’t know if your wife is abusive to your children, but please do not minimize it if she is. It can be emotionally terrifying for you to have to confront your own wife about her behavior. It’s tragic when children continue to be verbally abused because another adult is too scared to say something.
You have a dual role as the husband and the father. Even though you need to be there for your wife, when it comes to safety, your primary responsibility is to protect your children. They can’t protect themselves, so if your wife is crossing lines and harming them emotionally, then you have to put their needs first. If this is the case, then approach her compassionately, but directly, and let her know you’re concerned about the impact her parenting approach is having on the children’s emotional health. Make it clear that you’re not being critical, but you’re asking her to work with you to find a healthier way to redirect the children.
You can explain that you really want to find a unified approach that works for both of you as parent your children. You can suggest that you both look for parenting workshops, books, or other resources to help you develop a unified approach. It’s not enough to just point out that what she’s doing is harmful. You need to become an active part of working with her to create a new parenting approach together. Stay open to her feedback and concerns about how things are going with your approach and involvement. If she becomes defensive and won’t hear your concerns, then this is a marriage issue that will need some support from a professional to help you work through the impasse.
If you determine that she’s not verbally abusive to your children, then you’ll want to take a different approach with this discussion. Share with her that you want to work more closely with her to unify your parenting approach. You can explain that your approaches with the children aren’t compatible. Approach her with the recognition that both of your parenting styles have strengths and potential weaknesses. It’s likely she has a style that is more intense than your approach and has reasons for why she is doing things this way. As you make room for both approaches, you can work together to find a way that works well for both of you. There are some great parenting resources that can help you both find a way to support your children as they grow.
Also, it’s important that you consider all of the environmental and personal variables (some of which you mentioned), such as the number of children, their close proximity in age, sleep deprivation, isolation from other adults, and any number of other very real exacerbating factors. Your sensitivity and awareness of these realities will go a long way to make sure this discussion is supportive and productive.
If there is any need for personal accountability on your part, then please stay open to any needs or feedback she has for you. Perhaps she needs more involvement from you with the children or with her emotional world. Explore all of these areas as you discuss your concerns with her.
In review, make sure you assess for the potential for verbally abusive behavior. Your children will benefit from your willingness to either protect them from unhealthy behaviors or find a more unified parenting approach. Either outcome will set them up for a better childhood.
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.