When I come down from my home office at the end of the day, my six and three-year-old sons might be watching television quietly or they could be having some beef over a car, Lego creation, or just because. I’m not at the bottom of it yet, and my wife, Jenny, will declare, “You take them,” and walk into the other room. She checks out.
I understand the frustration our wonderful and relentless boys can generate. But in moments like these I feel blindsided. The 13 steps aren’t enough of a transition from day job to parent and I’m not yet ready to jump in, although I have no choice. I also feel as if my wife is just checking out when the moment gets tight and wiping her hands of the moment in favor of me handing the situation.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” she tells me. “I’ve done my time. I’m done.”
There are myriad benign reasons for a partner to retreat into a different room, or the screen of a phone: exhaustion, hunger, and everyday stress just being a few of the common ones. And, as far as the experts are concerned, it’s a fair move.
“Everybody needs to tap out,” says Debra Roberts, a licensed social worker and author of The Relationship Protocol: How to Talk, Diffuse and Build Healthier Relationships.
It’s also how anyone is going to regulate himself or herself. It’s like the ocean. The waves have to go out to come back in. “If we didn’t disconnect, we’d never reconnect,” says Keith Miller, licensed clinical social worker in Washington, D.C. and author of 21-Day Marriage Transformation: The Simple Antidote to Relationship Conflict and Negativity.
The question, and the cause of the frustration and even resentment, is often the uncertainty of when the self-timeout will end. It’s easy for the other parent to feel stranded, and it’s plausible in these moments to ask, “When are you coming back?,” or even, “What’s up?” But questions like these, even when delivered calmly, can be non-starters, Miller says.
Even if they weren’t, they’re short-term fixes, which aren’t really in short supply. Parents get locked into dealing with the immediate situation, shifting between management and damage control. It’s tiring and it lends itself to frustration. “It you’re just winging it, everything feels like a curveball,” Roberts says.
Part of the answer, then, is better planning. It could be as simple as asking on a Sunday, “What does the week look like?” This gives the chance to announce deadlines, appointments, and predict pockets of stress, and what is now known can be scheduled for and expected.
The larger answer, however, lies on eliminating frustrating moments, lessening any reason to check out.
Parents tend to feel the need to check out when they police and oversee every battle. To lessen those moments relies on getting the kids to work out their own disagreements says Dr. Pat Love, relationship expert and co-author of You’re Tearing Us Apart.
It’s not a quick process, she adds, but kids as young as three already understand what riles up an older sibling, so they can also learn how to do the opposite. From the parents, it takes patience, consistency, and saying every so often, “If I have to decide, you might not like the results,” to give some motivation, and unless there’s a chance of injury, moving away from the action.
That’s one part. The other, bigger part when the kids are acting up and someone is about to check out, per Love, is to step in and whisper, “Guys, come over here,” followed by, “How could we help [mom/dad] right now?”
The move is multifold. Coming in quiet tamps down adding more emotion to a hot situation. It’s another chance for the kids to problem solve, and it sends the message that the other parent feels appreciated and supported. “You’re setting up a beautiful system,” Love says. “The kids know, ‘If Dad loves Mom, my life will be calmer and more secure.’”
One more. A step up from, “How’s the week look?,” is a full-on weekly family meeting. On the agenda is all the stuff that worked from the previous week from brushing teeth to listening on bikes to cleaning up without being asked. There’s talk of the things that didn’t work and how they can be improved, and how all of that can make the upcoming even better, Love says.
Kids are good for 10 minutes with input and that gives them buy-in. After that, parents can continue, and, in the early stages, discuss the seed issue of how to handle those moments when one needs to checkout. Negotiate the details – how many is allowed per day or week; how long before someone checks back in – with the underlying agreement that when it’s asked for, it’s given, because even though it’s probably not at an ideal time, no one is crying wolf, Love says.
And this sends more messages to the kids. They see an inclusiveness to how the house operates, and they see parents who are about fixing problems. For the parents, there’s less unilateral thinking, less foisting of decisions onto others to figure out, and with that, partners are more willing to step in and take over, because, per Love, “It may not go your way, but at least you were considered.”