Children, Parenting, and Families

Raised by a Critical Parent? How it Impacts Adult Relationships

image shows a daughter raised by a critical parent

Adults who were raised by a critical parent may struggle in their romantic relationships in a number of ways.

Here are a few common scenarios:

  • Jeff bristles when his wife reminds him to slow down when he’s driving. He becomes angry, then begins to criticize her in defense.
  • Marie feels anxious about Jess pointing out that the picture she just hung is still a bit crooked. She feels inadequate and fears that her wife will never be pleased by her. She rarely speaks up, though, for afraid of upsetting her partner.
  • Lucy admonishes her husband that he doesn’t pick up after himself. Mark is frustrated by what he feels are Lucy’s exacting demands. He doesn’t understand why she becomes so angry when things appear out of order.

Each of these stories describes some common issues couples can face. What they have in common, however, is that one of the partners was raised by a critical parent. As adults, these folks can become easily defensive, feel inadequate  or possibly develop an intense need for perfection.

In this post we’ll discuss the complex ways in which being raised by a critical parent can impact adult relationships. We’ll also help you with how to communicate important issues while also taking  into account your partner’s sensitivities.

The Impact of Critical Parents

Research points to studies that parents who are critical, harsh and overly authoritarian can produce children who are challenged with anxiety. Adults who were raised by a critical parent may have a harder time adapting to adversity later in life. 

Punitive parenting can train a child’s young brain to overemphasize mistakes. When a child is chastised for making a mistake, the brain learns to pull back so that further mistakes are avoided. Over time, and with continued parental criticism, children learn to internalize that parental feedback and then criticism can become a trigger for anxiety.

Other impacts can include a feeling of never being good enough or that’s it’s difficult to measure up to social or work expectations.

Children are closely attached, or bonded, with their parents; therefore, the parents’ influence looms large. Children want to please their parents, and when their struggles meet with criticism it’s hard for kids to not take the parents’ comments as deeply personal.

In the three hypothetical examples above, each adult’s response is rooted in anxiety: One defends to avoid feelings of criticism, another’s fears of inadequacy and making mistakes comes into play and the third finds comfort in her intense needs for order.

Two Types of Critical Parents

Many parents have good intentions in their style of guiding their children. They want the best for their kids, and they feel they are helping their child by giving them lots of corrective feedback. However, if the criticism is received as even slightly blaming, the child can become anxious about making mistakes and then about taking risks.

What’s important is that parents who are correcting or guiding a child also provide a heavy dose of encouragement and positive feedback.

Other critical parents are controlling and can be emotionally abusive. This more overt criticism leaves its mark as well. There is little or no praise for the child, and the parent’s hostility can be as emotionally detrimental as physical abuse.

Raised by a Critical Parent: Understanding Your Adult Self

In counseling, we help couples understand how their childhood can be influencing their challenges in their relationships. However, the intention is not to blame parents. That’s rarely helpful.

Rather, the goal is to gain a useful understanding of yourself. Human behavior, while at times can seem illogical, often can be explained. What we learn as children can have a powerful impact. However, as adults, we have the ability to learn about our inner world and to make positive changes.

We can learn how we’re “wired” and to change how we react to situations. Our partner can learn to understand us, too, and together you can be a powerful team to help each other become happier and healthier adults.

Working with our partner, we can build a new understanding of having been raised by a critical parent and develop ways to communicate that avoid triggering our partner to feel criticized.

Writes Dr. Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, “We never like to hear that something is ‘wrong’ with us, or that something needs changing, especially if this message is coming from the loved one we most depend on.”

Each of us can have what Dr. Johnson calls “raw spots.” She notes that these can be a hypersensitivity from the past in which our needs were repeatedly neglected, ignored or dismissed. “These sensitivities frequently arise from wounding relationships with significant people in our past, especially parents, who give us our basic template for loving relationships.”

Sharing Our Raw Spots with Our Partner

If our partner doesn’t know or understand our unique sensitivities, then they can’t respond to us in ways we truly need. However, this journey can be indeed scary.

Dr. Johnson notes in her book for couples, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love,”  that “We are naturally reluctant to confront our vulnerabilities. We live in a society that says we’re supposed to be strong, to be invulnerable. Our inclination is to ignore or deny our frailty.”

For the other partner, there’s a challenge as well. “We are unsure what to do or feel, especially if we have no template for how to respond effectively.” She adds that as parents, we quickly respond to a child’s expression of pain, but may not know how to comfort or connect with our partner when they are struggling.

Understanding the Deeper Fears

The first important step lies with the person raised by a critical parent to work toward understanding the impact on them now and in this current relationship. Concerns can include:

  • How am I most easily upset when my partner offers suggestions or feedback?
  • Do I become critical of my partner and others as a way of keeping myself safe and distant?
  • Can I allow my partner to be there for me when I need emotional support?
  • Do I tend to interpret many comments from my partner as critical?

As couples recognize the challenges they’re facing, they can work toward sharing these deeper feelings. Often in counseling sessions, when these fundamental raw spots are revealed, the partner is often surprised. “I didn’t how you truly felt and why you can be so sensitive. It makes sense to me now!”

OK, But What if I Need to Tell My Sensitive Partner How I Feel?

First, it’s important to note: It’s far easier to criticize than to be vulnerable and express our deeper fears and needs. In other words, it’s more common for us to tell our partner what needs to be changed by them than to help them understand why we need a different response or way of connecting.

John Gottman, Ph.D., studied couples who were successful in their long-term relationships. He found that they did one powerful thing: They transformed their criticisms into wishes. Rather than pointing out a fault in the partner, the conversation begins with expressing a need or desire.

Rather than taking a “you” approach — as in “You never take out the trash without my asking,” a partner can say, “It’s really helpful when I know the chores have been done. I feel like things are running smoothly and I’m less stressed.”

Or: “I get nervous when we drive fast. It reminds me of the accident I had years ago. It’s hard for me to let go of that, and it’s really helpful when we go a bit slower.”

How to Avoid Being a Critical Parent to Your Kids

We like to think that we aren’t critical parents ourselves. However, we might not always be aware of how we come across to our children.

In his wonderful book, “Parenting from the Inside Out,” well-known psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, M.D.,  helps parents understand how they may parent their kids as an unconscious reflection of how they were parented. 

So, it’s not all that unusual for parents to replicate the style with which they were raised. Increasing your awareness can help you change the conversations with your kids. On the other hand, many parents recognize how their parents’ styles impacted them and may make a conscious effort to treat their children quite differently.

We know, however, that the same types of conversations you learn to have with your partner in Emotionally Focused Therapy can be applied to talking with your kids. As you read through the blogs recommended below, you can apply the same principles to helping your kids understand your concerns.

For further reading on this topic, we suggest our posts Communication in Relationships: Learn to Be Deeply Understood, Emotional Communication for Couples: Getting to What Truly Matters, and the hazards of not bringing up to your partner issues that are bothering you –Avoiding Relationship Conflict Isn’t As Safe As You Think .

Boundaries for Couples: Healthy Holidays with Extended Family

Boundaries for couples often become strained during the holiday season.

We’re spending more time with our relatives and have added family expectations that surround holiday traditions. Without having clear boundaries for couples, you can wind up feeling frustrated and misunderstood. 

And, couples can face struggles with boundaries with in-laws and extended family throughout the year as well.

Setting boundaries for couples can be indeed challenging — and can be the source of hurt feelings, arguments and  unresolved conflicts. During our interactions with extended family during the holiday season, these long-standing issues often come to the fore.

So, we’re devoting this post to helping you understand the challenges you and your partner might be encountering (you’re certainly not alone in this dilemma), as well as helping you talk through boundary concerns in order to build greater understanding between you two.

“Setting Boundaries” Defined

Boundaries are the rules and limits we set for ourselves — and as a couple — in our relationships with others.

Healthy boundaries enable us to say “no” and set limits with others while also allowing us to have closeness and good, positive relationships. Examples include: sharing information in appropriate ways, being able to communicate your wants and needs and being able to say “no” to others and accept when they say “no” to us. We don’t feel we have to compromise our values to please others.

Rigid boundaries may keep us distant from others, may prevent closeness with others, both emotionally and physically. We may be hesitant to ask for help, we can seem detached even from our partner and we may keep a distance to avoid rejection.

People with loose boundaries may tend to become over-involved and concerned about others. We can share too much personal information, struggle with saying “no” and may act against our values in order to please others.

Setting Boundaries Can Be a Mixed Bag

Establishing healthy boundaries can be challenging for some people more than others. Much may depend on what we were taught or experienced in our families as we were growing up.

As we mature, we can examine our own ways of connecting to others and determine our own choices about setting boundaries for couples.

Different cultures may have varying traditional boundaries. Some avoid closeness; others freely share information, hugs and connection with family and friends.

Also, each family develops its own style or culture as well. Some families maintain closeness with extended family members, neighbors and friends. Others are more distant.

Types of Boundaries

Several different types of boundaries are common and can include:

  • Physical Boundaries are how we handle physical touch and personal space. Healthy boundaries include an awareness ofFamilies enjoying good boundaries what makes others comfortable and how much physical contact you welcome from others. Some of us are “huggers” and easily embrace those close to us. Some people are less comfortable with physical contact.
  • Emotional Boundaries for couples involve how and what we may share with others. Sharing information with friends and family members can be a cause of hurt feelings if not first agreed upon. Poor emotional boundaries can include criticism, blaming and put-downs of others.
  • Material Boundaries include how we handle money and possessions. If we feel pressured to lend money or an important possession (such as a car), our boundaries help us identify when to set limits.
  • Time is also a source of boundary confusion. How and how much time we spend with others can impact any relationship. Couples often neglect to have thorough discussions of how their time will be spent: Pressures to spend time with children and extended family members may leave sparse time for the couple to have alone together.

Boundaries for Couples: Understanding Competing Priorities

Our first, and most powerful, attachment bonds were formed with our parents. As adults, our most important bonds are established with our romantic partner.

However, the bond we formed with our parents, siblings and other family-of-origin folks, remains a powerful influence. We can find we are straddling between both significant relationships — family and spouse or partner.

Attachment bonds are strong and enduring — therefore, when there’s conflict of any type, the emotions can be strong and easily triggered when problems arise.

“In-laws and extended family members often require couples to navigate a three-way relationship,” write authors Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies.”

“You and your partner chose each other, but you didn’t choose your partner’s family,” they explain. “If you’re like many couples, you and your partner have to work at navigating the expectations of family members.”

Typical expectations of couples by their families can include gender roles (what’s expected of each partner), opinions about parenting, receiving or giving financial support from or to family members and participation in family rituals, such as holidays.

How Do I Matter? How Do I Fit In?

holiday boundaries for couplesSpouses and partners can feel hurt or less emotionally secure when it seems the other is siding with or giving in to their own family’s influence.

To understand why issues with boundaries for couples with extended families can create such strong emotions and conflict, it’s helpful to be reminded of the powerful emotional bond created when we met our partner and fell in love.

The strong bond we initially felt — and that continues to keep us close and connected — means that our partner is the one we reach out for in times of distress, the one we miss when we’re apart, the person we count on to be there for us.

This attachment, through evolution, is crucially important to our well-being. We feel more confident, we feel secure and we feel we are not alone in facing what the world sends our way.

“We are never more emotional than when our primary love relationship is threatened,” notes Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the primary creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, in her book for couples, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.”

So, it makes sense, then, that when we feel our spouse or partner’s greater loyalty is to someone other than us — even a parent, sibling or close friend — we question our importance to our partner and whether we’re indeed a priority.

Healthy Boundaries for Couples Don’t Just Happen

“Family relationships can be both a resource and a challenge for couples. Extended-family relationships may provide social, emotional and practical support, especially in the early years of a marriage. At the same time, these relationships can create obstacles between partners that can endure for years,” according to Drs. Bradley and Furrow.

Here’s a type of scenario:

David and Marie typically spend holidays with her parents because they live in the same town. But, during their visits, David feels Marie is so involved with everyone there — except him. He feels more and more like an outsider, even though he can carry his own weight in conversations with her extended family.

Still, he feels hurt. He wants them to spend more holidays with his family, even though it involves a three-hour drive. And, he wants Marie to stay closer to him on visits to her family.

David is afraid to speak up because he knows how important these family events are to his wife. Yet, he harbors a resentment.

David clearly has a choice: Continue the resentment or speak to Marie and share his deeper feelings that include hurt, sadness and a desire for his family to feel as important to the couple.

Of course, very little will change if David doesn’t risk having that conversation — except, of course, that his resentment can continue to grow.

Let’s look at some ways boundaries for couples can be better addressed.

Keys to Greater Boundary Understanding

  1. Take time and initiate conversations with your partner to build a greater understanding of each other’s family traditions and culture. What’s most important to each family? What are the long-time holiday traditions? How does the family value closeness? What are each family’s expectations of the couple?

There may be vast differences between each partner’s family. Understanding and appreciating those differences can enlighten each of you and help you feel more comfortable.

  1. Avoid sharing personal information with family members. If your relationship has some challenges, your partner may feel his or her privacy was violated if these issues are discussed with members of your family. Too, it can be hard to “erase” the perceptions those family members may have developed after you and your partner have resolved the concerns.

Confiding in family members can feel like a source of relief; yet, it’s also a major breach of the trust you have built with your partner.

  1. Avoid criticizing your partner’s family members. Keep in mind that your partner has an emotional connection to his or her extended family, and your criticism can be hurtful to your partner.
  2. Along with understanding more about your partner’s extended family, be curious how your partner relates to them. Families are complex, indeed, and the relationships your partner has can be important. The greater your understanding of the familial bonds, the easier it will be for you to accept and honor your partner’s feelings.
  3. Plan, plan and plan! Holidays also can be stressful times. Spend time before the holidays discussing how to support each other should family holiday stressproblems emerge. Discuss, as well, how you’ll stay close and connected to your partner amidst the many family events. How can you make some time for each other during the visits? What does each of you need from each other to handle any challenges?

We spend lots of hours and dollars on holidays. Yet very little time often is spent on discussing how to keep your relationship strong during all the many interactions, family expectations and kids’ needs.

Resolving Old Issues

Speak up — we know it’s difficult — about any past emotional wounds or hurt feelings. At the end of this post, we’ll link you to some other articles on how to do this. Resolving old painful events helps each of you stay in the present and enjoy the holidays with a new perspective.

Work to resolve old or unresolved issues between the two of you related to helping or accepting help from extended family members. These may include:

  • Asking for or providing babysitting
  • Financially helping your adult children
  • Providing care and financial support for aging families
  • Offering family help when siblings aren’t equally contributing

Honor Each Other’s Family; And Prioritize Your Partner

Remind yourself that the effort to connect and accommodate your partner’s family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer in your relationship. Your understanding, patience and acceptance — despite challenges — requires rising above the smaller issues and minor hurt feelings.

What is often at the root of couples’ issues and arguments about extended families can be basic and profound: Does your partner truly feel they come first? That they are your Number 1 no matter what?

When you met and fell in love, your partner became the most important person in your life. You doted on each other, spent as much time together as possible and built your own history of emotional and physical connection. That powerful bond is the force that keeps you close and is the foundation of your partner’s security.

He or she needs to know — and feel — that they matter most. Yes, extended family and your parents were your first emotional bonds. And, they were the foundation of your ability to form adult-relationship bonds.

Often what we find is that boundaries for couples become a source of hurt and conflict when the partner does not feel he or she is a priority. Consider the information above. It might be time to rewrite a chapter in your own love story of cherishing your partner while balancing the emotional ties to your own extended family.

More Help

Learn more about after-holiday resentments for couples. Read more about How to Communicate Effectively with your Partner. Learn more about Taming Holiday Stress


Help for the Blended Family: Moving From Chaos to Thriving Connection

Your Blended Family Means Everything

This marriage is another chance for love for both of you — yet your blended family has quickly become wrought with issuesBlended Family you had not anticipated. You and your partner may find increased arguing, your new marriage is strained and you’ve both started to feel increasingly hopeless.

What you may not know is that the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than for first marriages, at about 67 percent.

We’ll help you understand the hazards your blended family can encounter as well as key areas the two of you can address to help guide you toward improved relationships for you — and with your children.

Blended Family Challenges Abound

You and your partner have fallen in love and eagerly made steps to move under one roof. However, the others around you — the children, grandparents and previous spouses — may not be so keen on this major change in their lives.

For the kids in blended families, the adjustment can be challenging indeed. They’ve already endured the divorce, separation, or death of a parent. Now, they’re wondering how they’ll fit in with the new household and step-parent. If the move means a change in schools, there’s another major adjustment to be made, as well as feelings of loss and distance from their friends.

Grandparents may fear lost connections to the grandkids and may struggle with how to develop a comfortable relationship with your new partner.

The ex-partner or spouse can be feeling a broad range of acceptance or conflict. Suddenly, there’s a new “parent” in the picture for his or her kids. Importantly, the ex-spouse may hold negative feelings from the separation or divorce. Issues about co-parenting may not have been resolved.

It’s a lot, right? Balancing all the emotions that come into the mix for the blended family is no easy feat. The new couple may find it hard to maintain their connection. The kids’ adjustment can take considerable energy and time, as can any conflict with the previous spouse and in-laws.

When Blended Families Begin to Struggle

Given all the challenges, it’s no wonder couples often find that arguing can begin even shortly after the marriage and relationship blends into one household.

Here’s what we often hear when blended family couples come to counseling for help:

“My partner treats my kids differently.”

“The kids aren’t getting along with each other, and we don’t know what to do.”

“Life and rules at his or her ex’s house makes it difficult when the kids return to our home.”

“My children’s grandparents won’t accept my new spouse.”

“We really disagree about parenting!”

While these dilemmas are fairly common, many couples struggle with how to cope or address these concerns.  Attempts at discussions can lead to arguments because the emotions underlying the concerns are so important.

Yet, what we find most often is that these new couples have failed to fully discuss so many aspects of blending their families prior to moving in together.

Without a foundation of understanding and mutually agreed-upon ground rules, blended family couples are then struggling to resolve issues that have gotten under way and likely caused hurt feelings among many of those affected.

Our “Before (and After) You Blend” Check-List

Of course, it’s always best to discuss and reach agreement on key issues before the “blending” occurs. Yet we feel this list also is useful after you’ve partnered and settled in to the new blended family household. The arguing typically comes from lack of clarity. Taking time to slow down and reach agreements has the potential to clear the way for greater understanding by everyone involved.

  1. Discover your parenting styles. Often, different parenting styles can be the root of conflict in blended families. Learning to take the best of different parenting styles and your personal strengths as parents can produce a great combination to benefit your children.                                                                                                                                                                        
  2. Develop house rules, preferably in writing. After all, it’s a new household — so new rules might be in order.

Older children can be invited to participate in developing the rules. Of course, parents have the final approval; however, when children are involved in creating rules and have agreed to them, they have some ownership. Then, they may be more likely to adhere to the new requirements.

Additionally, you can involve them in setting consequences for failure to adhere to the rules. Again, if they have a voice, they may be more compliant in accepting those consequences. Still, however, parents always have the final say. And, if you understand your parenting styles, enforcing consequences may go more smoothly.

  1. Discuss between you and your partner the needs of each child for support and comfort during the transition. Recognize each child’s strengths as well as how each child may be struggling with the transition. Working to meet these needs early on can aid in each child’s adjustment to his or her new life in the blended family.

This step can be critical. Spending time with each child to hear his or her concerns about the new life can help prevent some of the fears and stress later. Realizing the depth of the change each child is experiencing helps you accommodate their individual needs as best as possible. Also, it’s powerful that the child feels heard and understood by the biological parent and supported in feeling comfortable with the new parent.

  1. Explore acceptable boundaries with extended family members. Friction can result from the absence of a clear understanding between you about interactions with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.

A not-uncommon challenge in blended families is when the new partner does not feel accepted by the extended-family members. Discussing how the new partner feels and the type of support they would like can be vital to preventing these issues from impacting your new relationship with each other. Of course, you won’t be able to foresee every possible problem, but knowing how to support each other will strengthen your bond and connection.

  1. Develop some clarity about issues and concerns related to the ex-partner and the biological parent of the children.

For example, one partner may not agree with how his or her partner handles conflict with the kids’ other biological parent. Talking beforehand about what input each partner wants or doesn’t want on this issue can avoid conflict between the two of you.

Conflict with the kids’ other parent is often painful and difficult to resolve in blended families — and can be the source of considerable stress in your new relationship because of the impact on the children. This is another way in which having a clear understanding of how to support each other can help avoid some common pitfalls.

  1. Protect your connection. In Emotionally Focused Counseling, which is the most successful approach to helping improve relationships, therapists help couples develop “rituals” for staying close. These are special times and activities you set aside just for the two of you, such as a quiet time in the morning over coffee, an evening chat on the patio and date nights. Remember: Your relationship is the foundation of your blended family.

Better Relationships = Better Blended Families

You have a second chance at love, AND you also have a new opportunity to model for your children a happy, close, loving relationship.

We know from research that the bond children observe in their parents can have a far-reaching impact. Whether you’re aware or not, parents are making powerful impressions on their kids. Children are like sponges — absorbing the world around them. They’re keen observers of your relationship.

By resolving emerging issues calmly, by being open with children about rules and expectations in the new home and by tuning in to each child’s needs, you set into motion the possibility for children to learn valuable life lessons.

To learn about improving your communication, read Communication in Relationships

To learn more about having challenging conversations with each other, we recommend the book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, the principal creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.


Empty Nest and a Full Marriage

By Kristy Vergo

With all of the recent high school and college graduations happening around me recently, I can’t help but ponder the effect this has on the empty nest parents of the graduate. Your marriage or partnership is a living thing, and when it goes from including children on a daily basis to not including children, it can be a big time of change for your relationship.  

For some couples, there might be a sense of relief as their child graduates high school and thinks about going away to college, because now they have privacy, quiet, and fewer time demands. This may elicit feelings of freedom, as it creates space for all of the things that they would like to do.

On the flipside, there may be some worry; now that they don’t have kids to focus on and school schedules to keep, they may feel bored or empty. Many couples struggle with how to reconnect once the kids are gone. When you both miss your graduate, how can you get used to it just being the two of you again?

1) Notice and be honest about your feelings, not only with yourself, but with your loved ones.  It’s OK to be sad, angry, happy, and anxious all at once.  Ever heard of what you resist, persists? Different stages of family life are both joyful and sad, we need to let ourselves be human and experience this.

2) Offer an ear and a heart to your partner in their feelings. You might not be on the same page at all times. One feels relieved to have an empty nest, and the other feels sad. Make it OK for you to each have these different feelings, and create a space where you aren’t feeling these things alone.

3) Know what to expect. You may move through mourning the end of your parenting years, then recovery, and finally, renewal. Your partner and you may be having a tough time, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t rediscover each other and build a new, enriching phase of life. This is a big change, it will come with lots of ups and downs.

4) Look for ways to connect.  As social creatures, humans are wired for connection.  Don’t allow yourselves to retreat into separate lives that struggle to connect now that the kids are gone. Have date nights,  explore new hobbies together, connect intimately. This could become a second honeymoon for you.

Couples counseling can also be a great way to come together and create a new, strong foundation for how you will move forward and have an enriching life with an empty nest. Couples counseling isn’t just for when you are having trouble communicating, but can be a great way to enter new phases of life together and feel together.



Kristy Vergo Therapist Denver





Kristy is a warm and genuine couples therapist with a passion for helping you make sense of how the big things in life can affect your relationship. If you’d like to meet Kristy and explore what working with her would be like, contact us for a free consultation today.


How to Help Young Children Cope with Death

How to help young children cope with deathOn December 20th, a childhood friend of mine was killed in an accident. Her nine year-old daughter Sarah was orphaned just before Christmas. A tragic and sudden death leaves everyone reeling. Knowing how to help young children cope with death can be difficult given that everyone else is also in crisis. The adults have to function, and the child has to be cared for. Most adults don’t know how to talk to children about death, and don’t know what is and what isn’t normal in the grief process. The subject of children and grief is vast, but this is what you can expect with young children ages 0-9, and how you can help them in their grieving.

Infant-Two Years: Babies and toddlers have no concept of death, and no words to express anything. They live in a physical world. They sense the change in routine, and the loss of the loved one’s presence – their voice, smell, touch, seeing them. They can experience anxiety and fears that they are being abandoned because at this age they are completely dependent. They may cry, have health and sleep issues, and display physical behaviors like rocking, thrashing, hitting, biting, sucking. The most important thing for them is to be able to feel physical closeness and have their routine as close to normal as possible. Affection, cuddling, routines, and a lot of patience will do much to soothe these bewildered little ones.

Three to Five Years: Children this age have no ability to cognitively understand the permanence of death, even if they can understand some of the biology. They feel fear, sadness, anxiety, insecurity, worry, guilt, and confusion. They may think the loved one will return, and wonder what would happen if their other caregiver(s) dies. They may think that their thoughts have the power to cause things to happen, so they may believe that they caused the death by having wished that the person were dead at one time. They take things quite literally, so don’t use metaphors to explain things.

Young children can develop magical stories about the death or what will happen to them. For example, a four year old might think that their mom literally lives on a cloud in heaven, and may worry that she will fall off if the clouds disappear. Young children may seek out situations that help them distinguish the real from imaginary, and can act out scenes of death or develop a fascination with dead things. They may be full of repetitive questions, or act like nothing happened. They might start acting younger than they really are (regress) and want to be held or fed like a baby, or talk in baby talk. Intense emotional outbursts, dreams, and fighting are common.

The important thing for kids this age is to be able to do all of this with support – help them identify feelings and have their routines and structure. Answer questions simply and truthfully, and let the child cry. Don’t worry about the behaviors – as long as it’s safe. Involve them as much as possible in the mourning rituals (but don’t force).

Six to Nine Years: Kids this age are beginning to understand that death is final, and may have a lot of preoccupation with the details as they sort out the biology of death. They may think that their thoughts or actions caused the death, and are starting to ask spiritual questions and form spiritual ideas. A really common thing is to act as if the death never happened, to hide feelings, or be withdrawn. They can also regress. Nightmares and fears of others dying, acting out, and poor grades are common. They worry about what will happen to them if a parent or other loved one dies.

Complex emotions such as anger, guilt, fear, confusion, loneliness, worry, and withdrawal are likely to be present. Encourage art, drama, pretend play, dance, sports. Encourage the child to express their emotions however they can (verbally, through art, etc) without pushing or buying into the notion that they are over it because they seem fine. Be physical with hugs, and don’t discourage their regressing or questions. Work with the school to make sure they get support and have an appropriate workload.

If the child has any of these symptoms for a long time, or has persistent depression, sleep or eating issues, withdrawal, or major school issues, seek professional help. A counselor/therapist can help the child come to accept the death and heal.

Healthy Relationship Change: How to Start

Healthy Relationship Change: how to startSimple Steps to Create Healthy Relationship Change

So, if you can bring about positive change by focusing on yourself rather than by trying to change the other person, how do you do it? There are two major things you need to do in order to change your dance:

Get clear on what the real issue is

Many times in a conflict we go in with our gloves on but we are unclear about what we are really upset about, or what we want to be different. The most effective way to change your moves is to get some clarity. When you aren’t clear about what you feel and want, you go in and blow things up (and get disapproval instead of understanding) or you give up yourself to keep the peace. So, think about it – what’s the real issue? When you get angry with your kids, are you really feeling hurt that your children aren’t respecting you? Or embarrassed that you can’t control them? Or fearful that you are going to hurt them if you are too hard on them? When your partner does something that you don’t like, what are you telling yourself about what that means, and how are you feeling? Just try to recognize that there are feelings at play – learn to see it. You have a right to your thoughts, feelings, and wishes. If you can state your wishes clearly and make good decisions that honor them, that itself would be a hugely different dance.

Things will get in your way, but don’t give up

We have a right to what we want and so does everyone else. We want others to change for us, and like it. Or, at least let us change without giving us any grief. Sorry, but this isn’t realistic. Change is hard for everyone. This creates anxiety that makes people try to get you to change back. Your job is to stay clear on what you want, not to make the other person’s anxiety about change go away. Your own anxiety about change could be your biggest enemy. If you did things differently, things would change, which can be scary. Things got this way because it serves a purpose, and the dance you know could be easier than the dance you have to learn. The good news is that small, easy steps are the best course of action and usually create positive changes. If you do too much too soon, it’s likely that everything will rebound back to the same old dance. If your expectations are realistic you’ll be prepared for little bumps along the way. So, start slow and don’t get upset if things don’t change immediately.

Once you have put some thought into those two things, you are ready to try out some simple steps:

Strike while the iron is cold. Don’t try to change things during the heat of an argument or difficult time with a loved one. You yourself have to take a step back and calm down so that you can gain clarity and own your position. You also can’t get anywhere with another person when they are upset. Walk away from the fight and let it simmer down. Let the crisis with the kids subside. Then collect your thoughts and address it.

Change how you approach a situation. Do something funny instead – such as create a funny rhyme to recite to your spouse instead of avoiding the issue altogether or storming in.  Express your anger with your spouse through a finger puppet. Write a little note, or something that it just different from how you normally bring something up. Surprise and humor do a lot to change the old fighting dance! Are the kids fighting in public? Do you have the guts to lay down on the floor and pretend to have a tantrum right there in the store and embarrass them to death?

Make more decisions that honor you. This is useful for people, (frequently women, but by no means only women) who find themselves foregoing their needs and wishes to keep the peace with their spouse, kids, parents, etc. Stop waiting for someone to make it easy to change. Usually someone has to make the first move and it might as well be you. It’s important to make it clear that you are doing something for yourself rather than to someone else. If you stay clear about what you feel and need without trying to change the other, you may find that you see more change happening.

Good luck! If you are diligent and keep trying, you will be well on your way to having healthier relationships through being more responsible for your own actions and creating positive change through changing yourself!