Q: I always tend to rush in to protect my kids from making mistakes or being disappointed with failures they could have. My husband keeps telling me I don’t hold them accountable, that I lower my expectations so they won’t be challenged. He feels I’m depriving them of experiences to discover what they’re capable of doing. I do protect them, because I learned the hard way that making mistakes can cause some serious setbacks in confidence and self-esteem. Your feedback would be really helpful.

A: Having raised my own children, I can certainly see both yours and your husband’s perspectives. It’s painful to see our children struggling, trying to recover after a big disappointment or humiliating mistake. We can fix things so easily when they’re physically hurt, by cleaning their wounds and applying bandages. The emotional and psychological “wounds” are much harder to “fix.” As much as this is rooted in the best parental intentions, this kind of support misses the opportunity to validate our child’s feelings, by hearing and understanding the challenges they’re facing.

We all make mistakes, probably pretty often. Forgetting a friend’s birthday, paying a bill late, buying the wrong product, not making that promised phone call, running a red light, backing into the parked car we were too distracted to notice, and so on…. So what do our children witness when we make mistakes? Are we able to model a calm, rational response when we slip or make the snafu that sets us back? Our children observe us closely, very much aware of how we navigate through our mistakes and defeats. Our reactions to failures, if handled badly, help shape how our children will react, whether they’ll avoid taking risks, fearing their own potential mistakes. Alternatively, when children witness their parents approaching situations thoughtfully, remaining calm while effectively problem-solving, they are more likely to behave in similar ways. Mistakes are a part of life, for children and for adults. When we frame them as opportunities to learn, to grow, and to understand how to reach different solutions, we’re helping our children become more resilient.

One of the most important messages we can convey to our children is that we unconditionally accept them for who they are, not who we wish they could be. When we show them love and appreciation, their mistakes can be taken in stride, removing any burden that they are a disappointment to us. Avoiding the temptation “to rush in to protect them” from possible failures or to lower your expectations to ensure they won’t be challenged beyond their comfort level robs them of experiences that help them discover how capable and strong they are.

Q: My husband and I are fighting much too often, with each time getting to the point that one or both of us threatens divorce. I believe we really love each other but we can’t seem to get past our power struggles. It’s the same cycle over and over — we always blame the other partner for causing the problem we’re fighting about and then try to call it quits before our spouse does. We’ve talked about how it’s like that fight-or-flight reaction with us both, but we can’t seem to talk about what’s really going on and how to fix it. Thoughts?

A: It sounds like your relationship is volatile, with each of you in considerable pain. This suggests the dance in which you’re stuck is bringing up abandonment issues for both of you. Barriers, rather than bridges, are being built each time you fight, with neither of you feeling sufficiently safe to honestly share your part. The flight-or-flight dynamic you describe, with the mutual fear of abandonment, blocks any chance for connection. “He will reject me. I’ll be all alone. It will be less painful if I reject him first.”

The first step towards healing is for each of you to focus on the root of your trauma, any childhood wounds. Perhaps no one took care of that small child each of you once were, perhaps you feel shame with that child, thus it will be difficult to communicate with each other as healthy, functional adults. Your immediate emotional reaction to each other (the “whoosh,” knee-jerk reaction) is to defend and protect that wounded child. In relationships, the child parts of you can become activated, bringing up uncomfortable vulnerability at times in both spouses. During those times, as you’re triggered, neither of you can help the other with those strong emotions. If no one protected you, kept you safe, or if you were abused as a child, you will instinctively expect your husband (as he will you) to comfort and ease those painful feelings. We all instinctively turn to our partners for those things we didn’t receive as children without realizing we’re reacting to our past.

When you’re in that contentious dynamic, neither of you feels seen, heard or understood. The ability to be fully present, holding tender space in which to listen to each other, requires a strong commitment. Threats are very damaging to any relationship, used as a weapon to control the outcome. Try sharing your inherited family patterns with each other, your respective ancestral map, owning how you experience your dance of disconnection with the threats of divorce. Relational recovery is a moment-to-moment practice because your relationship matters that much.

“The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for.” — Joseph Campbell