How can I help my parents get along better?

“How can I help my parents get along better?” New Era, Sept. 1978, 18–19

“How can I help my parents get along better?”

Answer/Brother Elliott D. Landau

I think this is the most unusual, challenging, and creative question I’ve ever been asked. Let me tell you why. The wisdom of children has been the subject of adult speculation and scriptural assertion for eons of time. Consider the ancient Hebrew saying, “If the world will ever be redeemed, it will be through the virtues of children.” Or Matthew 18:2–6 [Matt. 18:2–6], wherein Jesus proposes that the humility of little children makes them splendid examples to adults. In verse 10 [Matt. 18:10] he says, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones.” Indeed, children can be instrumental in revealing adults to themselves.

I have never heard of a divorce that came as a surprise to the children. Similarly, children “know” when there is love at home. It isn’t a matter of intuition that tells children when their parents are happy or sad, it’s a matter of observation. Even very young children pick up the cues or the vibes that exist or don’t exist between their folks.

A young adolescent came to see me one day saying that he was having trouble communicating with his dad. In fact, he said, they never spoke but what they nearly came to blows. He went on to say that he thought his father was often behaving quite childishly. I was struck by the general level of maturity displayed by this 16-year-old. I vividly recall my reply to him, because when I finished one sentence, he looked at me and said, “I’ll do it.” His clipped response was in reply to this question: “Why don’t you become your father’s father and treat him the way you’d like him to treat you?”

There are two ways you can help your parents get along better. The first strategy is a very direct way. It is an overt, head-on approach. Allow me to put it into the form of a vignette:

Setting: It’s just after Sunday dinner.

You: Mom and Dad, I need to talk to both of you.

Dad: Both of us?

You: Yes, both of you.

Mom: Well, well, whatever about?

You: About the way you two are behaving toward one another.

Mom: What do you mean?

You: I mean what I say. We kids aren’t exactly sleeping. We think you two are at each other too much; you’re not communicating; you’re not happy, and we feel it, too.

Nothing could be more of a frontal attack than this. Such a confrontative, reality-based assault may shock your folks into taking a good look at themselves.

A less direct, yet confronting approach might be to, in the same setting, ask if they haven’t considered taking the Sunday School’s Family Relations course. This is not too subtle, but subtle or not, it just may give enough of a hint to your folks that you kids are quite aware of marital tension.

Before discussing the next, less combative technique, let me direct a warning to you. I have already said that children can detect parental behavior that suggests their parents aren’t getting on too well together. Be alert to the fact that many of the usually accurate signs of marital unhappiness—absent father, noncommunicating couple, out and out arguments, temporary separations, etc.—do not necessarily mean that a divorce is imminent or that your parents are terribly unhappy. Some folks only know how to show affection by battling. And some mighty fine children and families can evolve from what appears to be the embers of a marriage.

Second strategy. Select the parent you feel closer to and arrange to be somewhere together. (“Hey, Dad, pick me up from work—my car is being repaired.” Or, “I’m glad we’re alone for a minute, Mom. I’d like to talk with you for a second.”)

Once alone, unload gently but firmly. Let’s try another vignette:

Setting: Mom has gone to evening Relief Society and left something to eat for you and Dad.

You: Dad, can I level with you a minute?

Dad: Yeah, sure.

You: I’m worried. Maybe I’m wrong but you and Mom have sure been at it lately. Is it habit or are you sailing some rough seas?

It is a fact that one of the causes of marital tension is the difference in philosophy between husbands and wives regarding the resolving of discipline problems concerning their children. In other words, children are often the cause of parental problems. For example, going from one parent to the other after being refused permission to do something is a most common youth strategy. You can always say, “But Dad said it was okay.” If you are part of the problem, and you probably are, then you can be part of the solution. (There is sufficient data to show that husband-wife problems are not strictly between them; problem couples are living in a problem family where everyone concerned is part of the problem. The family triangle, mother-father-child, is more likely, in LDS families, to be the family octagon! The point is that more likely than not it is a bit unfair to only talk about parents getting along together. It is more nearly correct to implicate the family and to talk about the family not getting along.)

For problems that are too serious to be handled within the family, wards and stakes in the Church have many competent lay and professional family therapists who can meet with a family for a period of time to help them look at themselves. Adolescents can suggest to their folks that as a family they should seek guidance and counsel. If you feel comfortable about changing some of your own behavior to help the family get along better, so much the better. It is no disgrace to get a knee operated on. It is no shame to seek solutions to an acne problem. Similarly, there is no stigma that ought to be attached to those seeking help for family problems when all the family’s own resources have been used. In this Church I should think that family health is at least as important as physical health. Young people can talk this way with their parents and help heal family lacerations.

You have so often heard that we were never promised a rose garden. And we weren’t. A common rejoinder here has been, especially from families who hurt, “Yes, but neither were we promised a briar patch!” Making a family “work” is more than accidental. And it’s more than laying the blame on any one person or any one couple. Elder Richard L. Evans once said, “No marriage—no life—is free from problems. Always there are adjustments to make, things to work out, need for understanding.” (Improvement Era, Sept. 1961, p. 660.) Family happiness is a family affair. It is, indeed, a sacred obligation to help create family happiness. Everyone in a family is an architect, a planner for that family. You can probably guess what the last line of this article will be. Here it is—the answer to the original question, “How can I help my parents get along better?” is really the answer to this amended question—“How can the members of a family help the family get along better?”