ASK EMORY: A break from complaining

ASK EMORY • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN

Dear Emory,

Help! We had a terrible time when our family was home together during the blizzard. The kids were picking on each other and fighting constantly. My partner got upset and yelled at the children, which drove me crazy. I pointed out that she was making things worse, but then she would blow up at me! I’ve been daydreaming about how different our vacation at the beach was last summer. That’s the last time I can remember everyone getting along well. I wish we could escape this terrible funk we are all in, but it’s a long time between now and next summer.

In a Funk on Franklin

Dear Funk:

Oh dear. I can understand why you feel so unhappy. It’s hard to come home and be with your family when everyone is chronically upset and irritated with each other. It’s hard on you, and I’m guessing everyone else in the family is suffering, too.

Sometimes, parents and kids get into these sour, self-perpetuating cycles of complaining about each other, complaining about being criticized, and complaining about all the complaining. That, as you’ve noticed, is a whole lot of complaining.

I imagine by now, everyone in your family is feeling extra-sensitive and on edge. Do you notice extra-defensiveness in yourself and other family members? Does it seem as if everyone is just too quick to get upset and retaliate? Then, I wonder if your family is suffering from a “Criticism Overload”?

Criticism is one of those things that doesn’t seem like a big deal when it starts. Kids are careless and they leave messes—so we complain about it. Partners are too inconsistent or quick to anger—so we complain about it. Families are disorganized or always late—so we complain about it. (Of course our complaints aren’t particularly effective, which joins the list of things to kvetch about: “Why doesn’t anyone care that I keep complaining about this?”)

The problem with criticism is that finding fault is inherently hurtful. Criticism usually makes people feel bad because that is basically what it’s intended to do. When someone feels disturbed by something another person is doing, it seems reasonable to give them a hard time about it to try and get them to stop or change.

Criticism and complaints are so common, we tend to accept this way of life without question. We more or less learn to live with other’s complaints by learning not to take them too seriously. Therefore, most of the time, when things are going basically okay, both kids and grownups can let complaints roll off their backs without too much distress.

But sometimes the balance gets tipped: when it seems like there are more corrections than appreciations, when the complaints outnumber the ‘thank yous’ and when criticism feels chronic and appreciation seems rare. This is often the point when both individuals and families shift from ‘doing okay’ to ‘not doing okay.’

So, yes, I heartily agree with you, Funk. Your family does need a vacation. Vacations, after all, are where most both grownups and kids get to “lighten up” and “ease off.” That is just what your family needs right now.

So why wait until next summer? Why not give your family a vacation this month? It won’t be a vacation at the beach, but you can give them a break from complaints. Even temporarily stopping criticism can work like a magic “Re-Start Button” to help your family relax a bit and recover their equilibrium.

I recognize that not complaining or criticizing for two weeks can be hard. It will be a big change—albeit a welcome change—from the negativity that is now almost routine. See dishes in the living room? Just pick them up or leave them without a nasty look or comment. Hear the kids starting a fight? Leave the room without a grimace, and go somewhere else. Your partner is overreacting again? You avoid reacting, too. (Instead, you might even commiserate, “It is frustrating when that happens, I can understand why you’re upset.”)

The beauty of taking a break like this is that you’ll discover that things don’t actually get worse when you stop criticizing. Your kids will not fight more. Your house won’t get that much grungier. Your partner won’t become even more inept as a parent.

Instead, what you’re likely to see is the same kind of benefits you’ve noticed when your family is away on vacation together. Everyone relaxes a bit and softens their defenses. Everyone gets a chance to catch their breath, and feel more at ease. As spirits begin to recover, relationships improve, and the way people talk and act with each other gets better, too.

Of course, mistakes will still happen and things will still go wrong whether you complain about them or not. Giving up criticism does not mean you’re waving a flag of surrender or accepting the status quo. Far from it! Your values are still important and family problems still irk you. Yet, the old round-robin complaining routine wasn’t solving those problems, it was making things worse. Give yourself and your family a mid-winter break from criticism to push the “Re-start Button” and get your family on a more positive track.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: www.emorylucebaldwin.com