"Quit badmouthing each other in front of the kids!"

By Warren Matson, LCPC

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“Often parents bad mouth one another in front of the kids,” reader Joseph D. writes. “Can you help parents see how this puts children in an awkward position?”

Communication—it seems that so many issues in relationships and families are a result of it. Bad communication, that is.

Often, communication is lacking due to conflict avoidance. Other times, we communicate, but in a way that is critical, judgmental, or just downright mean. When we add children to the mix, we are modeling to them what is appropriate, and oftentimes the communication styles they learn and believe are appropriate will create problems in their lives and relationships.

To specifically address Joseph’s question, I want to share how we can avoid both ends of the spectrum, and model healthy communication to our kids. In doing so, we also avoid putting our kids in that awkward position where they hear us speaking to each other in ways that demonstrate disrespect. I narrow these down to three basic tenets:

  • Don’t judge! Anyone can say or do anything they want. It is not our place to state what is right or wrong and more importantly what makes our way better? If it is judgmental, don’t say it. Think about the point you want to make or the boundary you want to set and communicate that without judgment.

  • Don’t have expectations! Again, we all have a free will and we all have an agenda. That is not the issue. Forcing it on someone else is. If we approach communication with that in mind, our only option is to simply state what we require, and what will result if we do or do not get it. This is matter-of-fact and focuses on our needs, neuroses, or desires and allows others to make informed decisions. It helps us become experts at setting good boundaries.

  • Don’t act superior! You will be surprised if you pay attention to how you address your partner and the conflicts in your relationship at how often you act superior. It happens when we think our way is better or their way is dumb. It happens when we are imperative and can’t accept that there may be different avenues to the same end. It makes our partners feel inadequate and defensive and no good ever comes of it!

If you can follow these three rules, the issues discussed will not make your children feel awkward. And to those who question if problems should be discussed in front of the children, I would adamantly say, “Yes!” They learn conflict resolution from us. Bad communication does not teach them, but neither does no communication. Seeing parents process and address conflict in a healthy way is one of the most useful tools they can learn!

This article originally appeared in The Chicago Phoenix.

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