For moms and dads worried about spending too much or too little time with their kids, the antidote could be each other.
Your spouse should not be competing with your kids for your attention. But if they are competing, your partner should win every time. This is the consensus of researchers and family experts. “I think that the question of when to prioritize your partner over your kid is best answered with ‘always,’” says family therapist Raffi Bilek, director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. As a parent to three young children, he recognizes that this advice is counterintuitive. “You need to develop an overarching approach to the dilemma rather than try to triage each situation every time it comes up.”
Don’t get us wrong — your kids need your attention, and you need theirs. Research on postpartum depression suggests that not attending to an infant’s early needs can result in issues with attachment, anxiety, and depression later in life. And when fathers aren’t involved, their kids experience lower IQs, increased rates of obesity, and generally higher risk-taking behavior in adolescent years, studies show.
Still, there’s plenty of evidence that parents who are too involved in their kids’ lives hinder the development of their children’s prefrontal cortices and make them less resilient. Children with so-called “helicopter parents” are, like their neglected peers, at greater risk for depression and anxiety as they age. So it’s a balance.
Studies suggest that families that are able to find that middle ground are ultimately better off, because children grow up seeing healthy, loving relationships between their parents. We’re not saying that just because you prioritize your kids over your marriage you’re going to have an unhealthy relationship. But Bilek and other experts suspect that relationships are stronger when couples see one another as priority number one.
It is noteworthy that young children have a tendency to personalize marital conflict, and believe that when their parents aren’t getting along, it’s their own fault. In a word, your kid doesn’t mind if they are the second most important person in your life. But your spouse might, and so a cruel irony emerges: Many parents who put their kids first fight bitterly due to feelings of marginalization — and traumatize their children as a result. Who are you really putting first?
Susan Groner, founder of The Parenting Mentor and author of Parenting: 101 Ways to Rock Your World, says one way to avoid the problem altogether is to make life less hectic. Try stepping back from not only your busy schedule, but from your kids’ busy schedules. You’d be surprised how much more time you have to build your relationship with both your spouse and your kids, Groner says, when there’s just one fewer soccer practice on the calendar.
“If we schedule our kids less, we have more time to be together as a family and as a couple,” Groner says.
Avi Klein, a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in helping new parents focus on their relationships, agrees with Bilek and Groner. Although bumping your kid out of first place may seem difficult, one simple solution Klein offers is to avoid siding with your kids in family disputes. Even if you think your spouse is wrong, there’s a time an place to hash that out. In front of your children, everyone benefits from you presenting a united front.
“They won’t resent you, your kids will respect both of you, and you’ll model healthy partnership to your children,” Klein says.
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