An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:
I have a question about my husband. He is generally an amazing dad and spouse. However, we are struggling to meet in the middle on some parenting issues, including this one.
My husband regularly roughhouses with our four-year-old daughter. She has a tendency to want to continue rough-housing past the point of what my husband wants to do. At this point, he’ll shut down. He is usually sitting on the couch watching TV or on his phone when all of this happens and he gets annoyed. He’ll play for a bit, tickling her, pushing her around the couch, holding her in the air, etc. He’ll do things to her past the point of where she wants him to stop. She’ll say over and over, “Stop, stop, Daddy, stop.” At that point, I say, “Hey, she’s asking you to stop.” That usually doesn’t go over well and he snaps at me, basically telling me to mind my own business.
He’s been taking it to a level when he’ll rough-house with her to the point where she’s begging him to stop but always goes back for more and then when he wants to stop he’s getting physical. She’ll lick him or start scratching him, for example, so he’ll physically hold her down, push her away almost violently, or scream at the top of his voice at her in her face. All of these things obviously scare her and make her cry. When it has gotten to this point, I’ve stepped in and said, “Hey, you’re not acting like an adult here and you’re only teaching her that saying ‘stop’ has no meaning, so she doesn’t understand why when you say ‘stop’ you really mean it. She thinks it’s a continual game and she doesn’t know how to stop if the word stop really has no meaning.” I’ll tell him he shouldn’t be so rough because he’s going to hurt her and why does it always have to end in tears? I’ve suggested that if he’s done, he gets up and tells her he’s done with this game and then does something else with her. However, he then tells me that I don’t know how to discipline and asks who I think I am. It’s just silly.
The whole thing is wearing on me and I don’t know how to approach all this. We’re starting to veer in totally different directions here and it’s unnerving.
Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:
Roughhousing can be a wonderful way for parents and children to recharge their connection. Roughhousing or active physical play also helps children to develop emotional intelligence and more awareness of their body. This kind of play also helps children learn to differentiate between play and aggression and how to work cooperatively.
The key is to roughhouse in a way that is fun, engaging, and respectful. Your concern with listening and honoring your daughter’s words of “stop” are very valid. When adults are leading active physical play, they are setting an example of how to respect boundaries and limits. If a child says stop, the adult should stop and wait for the child to ask or show signs that they are ready to play again.
Dr. Anthony DeBenedet, M.D., is the author of The Art of Roughhousing. In his book, he explains that children are actually better at expressing and sensing when they have reached their limit, so parents do well to follow the child’s lead and pause the game when words like “stop, enough, no more, or done” are being used. Tuning in to the child during play means that you are not only playing and enjoying each other’s company, you are also modeling listening, fairness, self-control, and cooperation, all qualities we want to see in our children.
Openly and calmly discussing some roughhousing rules would probably be helpful for everyone in your family to avoid conflict during future play. Also, trying a slightly structured approach such as playing roughhousing games (piggy back ride, pillow throwing, or catch and hug) can help build a dynamic of listening and working together that will naturally lead to more attuned free-style romp, role, and tickle play.
I’ve been in a similar situation with divergent ideas about boundaries for each parent. While children are very capable of knowing how Mom likes to be played with versus Dad, it is very confusing to have no real boundaries or conflicting messages all from the same parent.
First, if you can catch your partner in a positive and open mood, consider asking him to do a gentle discipline online course or Non-Violent Communication class with you. If he won’t participate, you can take a bunch of training online and have some clout. Modeling impeccable boundaries with your daughter in front of your partner can sometimes help without being preachy.
While it is very common for a parent to get into roughhousing and then decide abruptly they’ve had enough, I would be more concerned about your partner not stopping when your daughter tells him to. I would speak with him, thinking about your daughter as a teenager and how she needs to know that her boundaries matter and should be listened to. This way, if she is assaulted beyond her boundaries, she will know it is wrong and can tell someone. If he agrees, have a family meeting to talk about new rules for safety and boundaries for everyone. “No means no.” “Stop means stop.”
Couples counseling is pertinent if you are having troubles communicating about parenting. If he isn’t open to any of this, I would look at whether you and your daughter are safe with him in all other ways. Is there yelling? Do you feel safe regarding his moods? Does he respect your own boundaries? Are there other ways your daughter might not feel safe with him? If it feels like there is emotional or physical lack of safety, I suggest getting out of the relationship so that your daughter won’t have to continually witness unhealthy dynamics.
The type of situation you outline is classic in many ways, which may contribute to the challenge. There are a few things going on at once and possibly by addressing each one uniquely you will be able to work through this with your husband and child.
First, I hear that your daughter loves her dad and vice versa. He tries to play with her when she wants attention, even though he may not be fully interested or has something else he’d like to do at the time. Instead of clearly telling her when he’s done, it gets rough and she’s unsure of the boundaries, leading to “pushing” them. When I said it’s a classic situation I mean that it’s common for parents to get into these types of boundary struggles, often leading to power struggles. If we’re not sure how to respectfully set and hold boundaries, our kids may have trouble respecting them. It happens.
I also hear that you find this very frustrating, understandably. It can feel disheartening when we seem like we’re on opposite ends of the spectrum from our partners (or anyone else). I imagine your husband feels the same. Here are some ideas that may help you choose how you handle the situation going forward.
Consider talking to your husband apart from the situation. You could schedule time alone, or wait until the opportunity arises. If he likes advance notice, tell him up front that you want to talk so you two can come together during these struggles.
When you have a few minutes to yourself, make some notes about what you appreciate in your husband both as a spouse and as a father. If it feels like a stretch, reach for times when you enjoy him or see your daughter smiling when she’s interacting with him. Next, notice how he is trying in this situation to father your daughter in the best way he can. Put yourself in his shoes. How might he feel when all of this happens, including when you say something to him about stopping or changing what he’s doing? Even if you don’t agree, see if you can discover the why of what he’s doing. Sometimes when we try to first understand, others are also willing to understand us. Last, note some ways in which he (and you) could communicate boundaries effectively. If you’re not sure, consider reading this article from Hand in Hand Parenting about setting limits with young children. All of these exercises help you learn more about him, move from reactivity to collaborative problem solving, and set you both up for success in the discussion.
Lead with talking about how you think he may feel when these situations transpire. Maybe something like, “It looks like you want to have fun with her, but you’re also into something else and it seems frustrating when she keeps jumping on you. I imagine it’s frustrating when I say something about how you’re fathering her too.” Use your own words. Move into your desire to work something out that feels better to both of you. Share your concerns while considering his feelings along with your own and the alternatives you would like to put in place. See if he’s open to some changes. Talk about how you can help each other in these situations.
Also, talk with your daughter about her feelings, what she’s looking for with her dad, and how to stop when he asks her to stop. Role play with her so she has experience with stopping and finding other things to do when her dad is done. Bridging their communication so they can both speak up for themselves will nurture their confidence together. It could look like reflecting what you’re observing, asking your husband if this is helpful in advance so it doesn’t come across as condescending. Something like, “It looks like you’re done playing.” Dad nods yes and then you ask your daughter what she’d like to do now that Dad’s done playing. I’m not advocating an unhealthy rescue, but more a help as they learn to navigate boundaries more skillfully.
I totally support stepping in when necessary. It’s also helpful to take the time to discuss such issues separately and even with a counselor or coach when helpful. Parenting is intense at times and boundaries aren’t always easy to navigate. Possibly as you come together (or you simply become more clear about your role in these situations) things will become more smooth, or at least you’ll be better equipped to deal with the challenges when they arise.