Unhappily Married: What’s Best for the Kids – Together or Apart?

Unhappy Marriage: What's Best for the Kids - Together or Apart?

Deciding whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or leave is possibly one of the hardest decisions a parent could make.

Sometimes despite the greatest ‘happily-ever-after’ intentions, a relationship can become a tense, unhappy, conflicted union. If this is the case there’ll be no hiding it from the kids – they’ll know and according to a growing body of research, they’ll wear the impact.

A number of studies have pointed to the negative impact of divorce on children but there is compelling research suggesting that many of these problems have their roots in the conflict and tension that preceded the breakup. It is widely accepted that parental conflict does damage, particularly when it is any of the following:

  • frequent;
  • heated (verbal insults and raised voices);
  • physically aggressive;
  • unresolved (in the child’s eyes);
  • about the child;
  • brings on the silent treatment between parents.

Parents will do anything for their children and this may fuel the decision to stay together in an unhappy marriage. Conflict though, might do more harm to children than divorce:

  1. Harm to the parent-child bond.

    In an unhappy marriage, where tension and conflict is the norm, parent-child interactions also seem to show signs of strain. As explained by researcher and psychologist Chrystyna Kouros, ‘…if mom and dad are fighting, it will show up initially – and in some cases on the second day – in a poorer quality relationship with their kids.’  The exact reasons for this are unclear but there are a number of likely explanations. Conflict drains the resources of a relationship and in doing so, can give way to ineffective or inconsistent parenting. Parental energy is also strained, leaving less to invest in the children.

  2. The trigger for psychological and behavioural problems.

    Marital conflict is associated with a range of internalising (such as depression, anxiety, withdrawal) and externalizing (such as aggression, non-compliance) outcomes in children.

  3. Poorer academic performance.

    Children who report higher levels of hostile, intense or unresolved conflict between their parents show poorer academic performance. 

  4. Poorer interpersonal skills.

    When there is ongoing tension and unresolved conflict between parents, there is likely to be minimal modelling of effective ways to resolve conflict. Disagreements are a part of life and the first place children learn how to handle them is in the home, by watching their parents. If there is limited modelling of successful conflict resolution, there will be limited learning of successful relationship skills.

  5. Trouble with their own future romantic relationships.

    Children who are exposed to frequent marital conflict are more likely to have trouble with their own romantic relationships in adolescence and through to adulthood. For children from high conflict homes, their experience with romantic relationships and is a negative one, effectively limiting their knowledge on how successful relationships work.

  6. Leads to emotional insecurity.

    Research has found that when parents are in an unhappy marriage, the conflict compromises the social and emotional well-being of children by threatening their sense of security in the family. This in turn predicts the onset of problems during adolescence, including depression and anxiety.  

  7. Causes cardiac stress and an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone).

    Tension or conflict between parents causes a physiological response in children. According to research, when children see conflict between their parents, they experience cardiac stress and a significant increase in the level of cortisol in their body. This physical response can harm their stress response systems and interfere with their mental and intellectual development.

  8. Non-verbal and verbal conflict cause similar responses.

    In a study conducted at the University of Notre Dame, it was found that children responded similarly to both verbal and nonverbal forms of conflict between their parents. Yelling, name-calling and verbal spite induces the same stress response in children as eye-rolling, heavy sighs, silent treatment and non-verbal intimidation such as finger pointing or glaring.

  9. Increases the likelihood of adult children divorcing.

    Research has found the highest rates of divorce occur for adult children whose parents divorced after a high conflict marriage. The second highest rate was for those whose parents stayed together but had a high conflict relationship. 

How to Disagree Well – Even if it’s an Unhappy Marriage

Disagreements are a fact of life. Disagree well, and you’ll provide your kids with the opportunity to learn some valuable life skills that will hold them well throughout their lives. Here’s how:

  1. Don’t fight dirty.

    Reduce the hostility and don’t fight dirty. No name-calling, yelling, personal attacks, eye-rolling, glaring or silent treatment. If a dirty fight is all you have in you, just keep it away from the kids.

  2. Resolve the argument and let the kids know you’ve made up (they’ll be able to tell if you’re faking).

    Make sure you let the children know that the argument has been resolved. Research has shown that conflict is particularly damaging to kids if they believe it to be unresolved. Let them know that you and your spouse forgive each other and have made up. It’s important to do this respectfully and warmly. Children are sharper than we often give them credit for and if you’re faking the make-up, they’ll know it straight away.

  3. Keep the effects of the clash separate from the kids.

    Be deliberate in keeping the effects of a marital clash on you separate to your relationships with your kids. Conflict takes its toll on even the strongest person. An unhappy marriage will drain your energy but its important to stay patient, sensitive and consistent with your kids. Do whatever you can to make sure your children feel that you still have enough energy for them. 

  4. Be alive the possibility that the kids may blame themselves.

    Let them know that grown-ups sometimes get cranky with each other and that it has absolutely nothing to do with them. Let them know they are actually the biggest reason you love each other or care about each other and that no matter what, they’ll never be the reason for the fight. They might blame themselves whether the argument is over them or not – it’s just the way it is. If you are arguing over something to do with them, do everything you can to keep it away from them or at the very least, do whatever you can to shut it down.

Not all marital conflict is unhealthy. It’s important for children to learn how to effectively manage conflict and one of the best ways for this to happen is for them to see their parents doing exactly that – loving each other through the bumps. Conflict that is resolved respectfully and with warmth and empathy will have a positive effect on kids and equip them with valuable tools for their own lives.

 Children of divorced parents can flourish and be as successful as children from families where the marriage is intact.

Nobody but you can decide whether it’s best to stay together or separate but what we know from the research is that if you stay together, it’s critical to minimise conflict, especially in front of the kids. Constant tension and arguing can harm them more than divorce. 

I’ve never met a parent who went to divorce as anything but the last option – but it is an option and perhaps a sound one if the marriage is one of tension or high conflict. 

Showing respect to your relationship doesn’t always mean staying. If you’ve fought to keep it intact and it continues to fall apart, respecting it might mean ending it rather than sending it to a slow cold death. Only the couple involved can make the decision and it’s not for anyone else to judge.

Every family is different but there are common reasons that relationships fall apart. If you have more fight left in you, see here for the 6 most common reasons relationships come undone and ways you might be able to get them back on track.

There’s a big difference between giving up and knowing when to walk away. Deciding to divorce in no way means you have failed or that the relationship wasn’t important, right or wonderful in its prime. What it means is that it has run its course and has little more to offer either of you. Think carefully before you decide to stay together for the kids, they may be the reason you need to make the heartbreaking and brave decision to walk away.

How children deal with divorce depends heavily on how the parents deal with it. See here for ways to help  children safely and soundly through to the other side of divorce.

94 Comments

Lost

For years I have had thoughts of divorce but I really don’t know what to do. I have tried counselling but I go alone because my husband won’t come. I have tried planning date nights etc. My husband and I have been married 11 years and together for 15. We raised his son together who is now almost 21 and now have a 4 year old of our own after 6 years of miscarriages. I feel extremely alone in our relationship my husband doesn’t come on family outings like walking to the park, swimming lessons, Tobaganing, zoo, etc. Even when we go camping I’ll say let’s go swimming or go for a hike and he will just stay at the camp ground and I’ll take our sone and dog ALONE. My husband likes to golf and will go golfing lots with his friends, go to the casino and parties and pubs with them. I’m never invited or asked if I can find a sitter. He often spends the night at friend’s because they drink to much to drive home. Even when we go on holidays he will spend most of it golfing with friends and we will be on our own at the beach and on totally opposite schedules. I even wanted to go on a steam train and he had nothing going on and instead of joining us on the steam train he chose to stay at the camp site alone. I feel like he takes every chance possible to not spend time with us and when he is with us he is usually criticizing everything I do. I crave the freedom of being on my own but worry strongly about the impact it would have on our son and I’m not sure I can share custody and I know I would have to. What do I do. Trying to talk about it usually makes things worse and not better.

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MARIA

Dated 4 years and have been married for 10.

Courtship was near perfect so i believed marriage would be bliss untill i found he was cheating jusy a fee months after our wedding while i was with child. It broke my trust but we tried to work it out. I forgave. In year 2,3, and 4 of our marriage i found that he kept ties with the same woman and a few others. It broke me completely. Trust was dead and romance was now a mirage. He swore he never cheated again my the coversations i found him to have made me doubt his love for me. Sex became a horror for many years beacause i always wondered if it was me he thought about while we were at it. It broke me. Little arguments started to turn bigger fights and today 10yrs in with 5 kids i sad to admit i probably made it worse by staying after he first cheated. That was a clear sign of lack of love. I hoped that we would get better but we are visibly worse today. I as most sad to see my kids watch us fight. I am 100% cetain he does not love me. He has no empathy towards me. He calls me names easily and snaps easily. He proactively ensures we spend no time together. Funny as it sounds he is a great dad and loves our kids. He provides their needs and a hard working guy. Apart from these good traits i have absolutely no other good things to say about him. I have tried to get us counselling but he acts as though it is a personal favour to me. My kids are afraid of divorce and i dont want to hurt them but i know deep down that he doesnt love me and staying will drain me more. I am a shadow of who i used to be.

Help me

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Daniel

I’m in a really similar circumstances however money has it’s not involvements and kids we’ve been married for 2 year and together for 6 years.

We have a 12 week baby and I cannot tell you how bad things have been. We hardly have sex, she’s never wanted to be close to me as in holding hands and kissing.

I thought I’d be okay with this until I saw other couples and I thought you know what ib ant some of what they have.

I’m so worried about leaving my children as they’re my world. But what else can I do? We argue all the time and I’m absolutely sick of it. Life is too short. I thought the way I’m treated was normal. Until someone from work started to text me and I knew she liked me then I saw what someone does who really wants to get to know you, kiss you ect.

The woman who is texting me is 24 with 2 children and I’m 32 I don’t want to leave my situation and go into something that’s just as bad.

I’m so anxious about all of this I can’t eat correctly and feel really sad all the time

Dan

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A mom

You have a 12 week old. No one with a 12 week old is having sex. Have some empathy for your wife. Think about what she is going through, what her body did, how it changed, how that must make her feel. How tired you both are. Empathy is the key here, not running from a new mother and your infant. Be brave and strong. You have a family now; you need to teach yourself how to care for it as much or ideally more as you cared for yourself as an individual.

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Saba

I’ve been married for 14 years.it was aranged marriage.i ahave two special needs kids. bonding between me and my husband is not do good.we are not ekotionally attached.he is not romantic person at all.The first five years lot of times he was rejecting me for sex. he was coming to me according to his mood,otherwise always said that i am tired. in the beginning i loved him but later I started to stay away from him.now i am diagnosed with moderate anxiety and depression.we have no intimate relation since long (6 months almost i guess). now i feel trapped in this relation.i feel improsoned and want freedom but i can’t.i don’t know where to go.my parents are not going to support me i know.even my brothers will not support.i don’t have friends here who can help me.i dont know where would i go if i get divorce.i am really dying inside..😢😢

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EstherC

I know this article is old but the topic is still so relevant. My marriage will too be just another statistic, a tale as old as time.

Met him at 32, he proposed 6 months later and within the year we married our only daughter was born.

We have been married 7 years and for the last 6, he has not had sex with me. I never rejected him but he always rejected me. Initially it was in a joking manner, he would let me touch : tickle him and then after a few minutes he would say he’s tired. I asked him why no feeling he would say tired or didn’t want me to get pregnant again so soon etc etc. after 3-4 years sexless I still asked he would joke he has achieved nirvana.

Eventually I couldn’t even touch it he would just flick my hand away rudely. While I have been celibate for 6 years, There has been some small hint and incidents that has led me to suspect he is cheating while I am busy with the kid’s activities. He tells people I’m fat but stops me from working out then says he likes me fat. He doesn’t give me any allowance even when he is earning much more now. I married him when he was earning peanuts and now he’s doing well he’s keeping it for himself.

I have finally commenced divorce proceedings and I pray to god it will go smoothly. I believe it is for the best. I am only 39 and cannot continue to waste my life like this. I owe it to my kid to show her what a healthy happy strong and independent woman in mind body and soul
Is.

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Hazel A

I am in the exact same situation as you, except maybe mine is a few years before yours. He also has not initiated intimacy with me anymore and although he calls me fatshaming names he claims they are affectionate pet names. I also have ever questioned him before about why he used to always like to be intimate with me in first few years of dating and beginning of marriage but now he is completely not attracted to me. He too said he already attained nirvana, sometimes he gives other excuses like being together for 10 years, the both of us have “progressed” our relationship into more than just sex. Actually deep down inside, I know myself that I have gained weight and no longer look as young and cute anymore. 2 years back he started requesting for intimacy towards me. That was after his mum passed away and he has the belief that his mum would reincarnate back as his child if he could get me pregnant. Upon knowing i have some fertility issues, he put me under so much stress to lose weight and go through IVF. The sex during these periods felt like just an act to bear him a child. Last year I finally succeeded in my IVF and bore him a baby boy. Since my delivery, I have been sleeping in a shared room with baby and the helper. I have not slept back in our bedroom not even once since. The concern is we cannot trust our new helper to wake up in time to meet the baby’s feeding time, at same time he snores so baby cant share a room with him. When I felt like I couldnt stand it anymore and asked to return to my bed with him, and asked to bring the baby along, he even asked to wait till after CNY to resume our couplehood sleeping arrangement. I feel very neglected emotionally and psychologically. Unhappy marriage is an understatement because now I must find a time to talk with him and that too are topics of clockwork regarding the baby. I dare not think sometimes knowing this may be the kind of marriage for me for the rest of my life and cant help but wonder after I oull through this pathetic existence to him, will I be happy or blame myself for accepting such a fate for myself on my deathbed.

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Niall

Human emotions are like a hot and cold tap. To get the right temperature you need input from both. Too hot you get burnt, too cold you get chills. Either way pull the plug out and start from new, refill your new bath 😘

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Jeannie

You go girl! You need to be loved and you will be happy if you make a decision to be happy it’s a choice. Hopefully your daughter will get to see her dad often. Believe in your self you will find Mr. right and enjoy life.

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Amma

This will be a great step forward for you. Divorce is hard but your happiness and content is worth it!!

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Anonymous

Esther , your story made me tear up as i too am in a similar situation. My parter is a Narcissist, on the highest level! he has been un employed for three years, tryig to kick his business’s off the ground. i have assumed the possition of bread winner for that time being ..but because that is my position i have taken the abuse that comes with it from a man like him. it bruises his ego. He accuses me with every man he can fathom up, speaks down to me, isolated me from my family, and when we fight my daugther whom is 3years old takes his side, makes comments at me and it kills me because because i am a fantastic mum, i work my ass off to support this family and i feel so alone…i want to leave so badly.. but the way he has wired my brain already, wow…all i can think about is all the people whom he said envy’s us will rejoice that i am now a single mum and im worried my kids will suffer that trauma…but i can no longer live like this…oh did i mention multiple times on his phone i have seen things that point toward him cheating? texts between him and woman..picking them up with my vehicle, spending my money on buying them drinks! wow…i didnt realise how angry i am till i wrote this! and through all of this…i stayed fathfull…and i stayed loyal..i work from home, so if im not work, im home with the kids..he goes out and sometimes doesnt even com home for the night. i basically feel like im working to pay the house, the car, and his spending to live his life how ever the hell he wants, why do i stay??? only god could answer that…

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simon

I have been married for 26 years and only happy for about 1 year of that time , my wife had OCD issues and never told me before we got married and they just exploded after we got married but I stayed with her and tried to help her. Four years into our marriage we had a son and that’s when things took a turn for the worse , I was forced to sleep in a separate room after that point due to the controlling nature of her obsessions she would throw items like books magazines, etc that I brought into the room away saying that they may be contaminated . This would lead to me trying to reason with her which just made her obsessions worse. One day she said I want a girl in my life as boys don’t see what I am going through , she got pregnant straight away and she gave birth to a second son. There has been no physical contact between us since that time 15 years ago she won’t even hold my hand in case it’s contaminated, I got Stage 3 cancer 5 years ago and then a stroke and heart disease 2 years ago and I have had no support from her at all and in fact, she said I must be making it all up even after operations and radiotherapy, etc. I stay in the home because of my 2 lads but the pressure and the worsening condition is taking its toll on me and the lads now . The neighbors and their friends have witnessed her behavior and generally ignore her. I have spoken to doctors and broken down in tears in their offices , I used to be a stong minded individual with career prospects but now feel broken

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Diana

My son is in a loveless marriage. He works, does the shopping, cleaning, childcare. The kind of husband that is too hard to find. I can’t, don’t know what to say. His daughter is his heart, but there’s no caring and love between them. Heart wrenching, and I don’t know what to say anymore. I want him to have a loving relationship. It’s just not there. They don’t argue and fight, there’s just no affection at all.

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Julia R

Great article…my son and his wife are having issues in their marriage. They both relate to me. I want to be able to give sound advice.I am concerned about the effects on the children.

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Sunny

I am a married man aged 34 and i have been in this marriage for 3years. When i met my wife she didnt disclose that she has 2kids (boys). When she told me i was shocked and i tried to be strong and thought God has a purpose for the 2 of us. We were blessed with a baby girl 2years ago. The problem is that we are always fighting in front of kids. when the boys do wrong she doesnt want to correct them and it affects me as i dont want to see wrong behaviour in them. Also she talks too much about how much she loves them and that she will do whatever it takes to be with them and make them happy. The other problem is she seems to be caring about the kids more than me. Personally i care about her a lot and also the kids. Of late she shouts at my face in front of kids and even tells me to go to hell. what should i do. I have even developed red eyes because of stress and crying

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Ana

You have to communicate your feelings with your wife! Kindly sit down and tell her how you feel when she talks down to you! Counselling may help either separately or together! Don’t tolerate her behaviour,.. but ask her why she’s talking down to you? Communication is key!b

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Ryan

I’m in kind of the same situation and I’m seriously thinking about leaving, Life is just too short and kids shouldn’t be watching their parents fighting and not loving each other. IMO

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Angie

Wow, I’m shocked to see a man upset because he’s jealous of the attention a wife is giving to her kids from a previous marriage. Those kids went through one divorce already, they deserve peace & happiness. Try counseling. You two should’ve gone to marital counseling before you married & had a child together. I feel your pain. I’m in a marriage with kids from previous marriages & we had 3 children together. It’s easy to feel lost as a couple while raising a family. That is normal. Set date nights. During your alone time ask your wife to set healthy boundaries for the boys behavior & suggest if it’s to much for her that you help pitch in & agree on guidelines. Your communication is lacking from the sound of it

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Santa

I’m in the same situation🥺.

I have been in a relationship for the past 10 years and we now have two boys together 6 year old and a 18month old .

The issue is that for the past 10 years he has cheated taken drugs lied and has a bad relationship with drink . I should have left him before we had kids but I was so blinded by love !!! I didn’t but since we have had the boys each day I feel more and more angry towards him as he spends every week end hungover as he wold have drank on the Saturday night to excess so he spends Sunday’s hungover in a foul mood .

He works all week and we don’t see much of each other and i get by happily to be honest I dread the weekends as we would have spent the su day arguing or silent treatment because of his drink this has been going on for years and now I don’t have the energy to be has energetic and go lucky as I once use to be I feel drained and helpless as the kids love him .

The truth be told I’m happier with out him and I feel like I’m a better version of me when I’m on my own .

We are not married.

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Aderonke

@Ryan it’s well…Am a lover of happy homes.. But you know what for a marriage to work the two involved have to come together and make it work..It’s not a day thing..It’s something you never graduate From…When you think of divorce..How are you sure you will find peace or fulfilment where you are going to…For me am a broken woman..I love my husband so so much..Have been married for 8yrs plus now but I notice that he doesn’t have My time anymore… Little things piss him off..We might be joking for example and I say something that doesn’t go well with him…He will just start shouting..This is a man that use to worship the ground I stepped on before…I have been thinking of leaving.. But am scared because of the boys.. I don’t have a job…..And even if I leave.. Where will I start from.. Please what should I do??

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Leah

Leave anyway. Sometimes without knowing it we tend to come up with excuses not to leave because a part of us is hoping the man we married will reappear. Evaluate whether you truly want to leave and if you do, understand that it will by no means be easy, but the best outcomes are when your back is up against the wall. Dont simply walk out without a plan, but start bulding yourself, your career, finding your own purpose, dress up without reason, and do things that will make you feel better and build your confidence. When you stay, understand eventually your kids will go on about their lives, and it will be just you and him. Do you feel that your connection will pass that test?

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Md

I hope you’re in a better place. I’m in the same boat and I’m pregnant. What did you do? I feel so helpless

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Angela W

my suggestion (and im not expert as im going through a separation at the moment) but resources ive found helpful are mort fretel and the book, hold me tight by sue johnson. either way. a proper sit down and talk about what each of you want and what will make you happy and if that will be with each other. our problem was communication, and seems to be for a lot of people. dont wait until it’s too late. i did and now my husband doesnt wnat to work anymore on the marriage, even though he wants to stay for the kids as now are are getting on so much better.

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Dan S

I’m 35 year old man with 4 children rang from 3 weeks to 9 years of age. I love my children with all my heart and would walk through fire for them. My wife and I have been falling apart for a few years now but try to always do family activities like hiking, canoeing, camping or beaching. I make really good money working as a Union rep and she spends the mass of our money while she works at different places at minimum wage for 3 to 6 months at a time. She won’t help me clean house and I do most all of the cooking. I want to stay with her for the sake of our children but I’m running out of options. I’ve often thought about a bullet through my head may solve my problem yet my children would suffer. I take meds for a back injury and always come up way short even though I take less then the prescribed dosage. She isn’t strung out or anything like that but I know the meds giver her energy because I have given her one or two on separate occasions for her knee. I really don’t care that she takes my meds, I care that she lies about it and doesn’t seem to give a crap when I run out and am down with pain. Even her taking care of our children is very very lacking, she won’t ever tell our kids to brush their teeth or even shower. I’ve personally seen them wear the same clothes for a week at a time while I was working power plant outages. I just wish I had married someone that gave a damn to begin with yet I have my kids and would not change it for the world. I need a wife that loves life and her man, not one that acts without care. I’m a good looking and fit guy with no problems in the bed at all but I do feel like I can’t even touch her sexually anymore. I just don’t feel love for her in that respect anymore. Tennessee is a great place to live but I feel like I’d be better off on the other side of the planet so long as I had my children. I just don’t know how to approach any of this anymore. Hope the best for the rest of you out there with similar issues.

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Thalia

I’m 11 years in a marriage. By year 3 it was bad. I kept having compassion. He is arrogant and sarcastic. He keeps secrets from me. We had counseling both from pastors and cognitive therapists. We yesterday again found ourselves fighting. He doesn’t treat me well period. Not violent but dismissive and not loving, rather he is on his own world. At least he shows he is caring by offering food, but then he doesn’t respect me in front of kids. So it’s rather toxic. There is no healthy communication at all.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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