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What to tell your kids when a parent loses control

| Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

Dear Carolyn:

My husband and I work at home together and get along exceptionally well ... that is, until we don't. Once in a great long while we will have a huge blow-up. It doesn't get physical but my husband will start dropping the F-bomb. Last night such a dispute occurred — he swore and stomped around and the kids could hear. We have household rules about cussing — but he lost his temper.

He is under stress at work and I think this contributes a great deal to his loss of control.

Today I get the silent treatment. It will pass by tomorrow ­— at least it usually does. What to tell the kids?

— Once in a Blue Moon ...

You tell the kids what you always tell the kids when one of you screws up. You say you're sorry ­— in this case, he says it — and admit the mistake by name. “I lost my cool, no excuses. You deserve a better effort from me.”

If he refuses, then you need to tell the kids you're sorry you argued, you'll work with Daddy on it and it's going to be OK.

Kids — people, I should say — are naturally inclined to lie their way out when they're busted, so push against this by making it clear that mistakes aren't big horrible things that must never be said out loud. Normalize the admission of fault, normalize a show of love for family members at their least lovable times.

This is the whole purpose of “household rules” and the adults who serve as their enforcers, beyond just keeping a household in line. Kids need to see their trusted adults make the effort to follow those rules themselves, and demonstrate humility and grace when their efforts fall short.

Conscientiously raised children are ones who have been told and shown how to conduct themselves when it's their turn to mess up. Doing the wrong thing isn't an “if,” it's a “when,” for everybody -- and the consequences of a mistake tend to get worse when we try to deny, shift blame or cover up.

So you have a duty here to set a crucial example of taking responsibility upfront.

Since the problem you're writing about is a recurring one, you also have to take responsibility beyond just a, “Sorry, my bad,” from Dad. He really must do better, and that means admitting he needs a healthier way to manage his stress. Day-to-day mitigation, that is, instead of ignore-ignore-ignore-BOOM-silence -- no stage of which is healthy.

This is his step to take, of course, and you can't take it for him -- but you can be the one who calmly and lovingly insists you both take a hard look at your coping methods. Wait till the emotions of the most recent eruption have cooled, then step in, with love: “Ignoring things till we have an explosive fight isn't good for the kids to see. I'd like us both to learn how to manage our day-to-day stresses better. Will you commit to this with me?”

Hello, Carolyn!

Husband and I are in the process of buying a house. The area that both of us want to live in is 15-25 minutes from my parents, and three hours from his; they used to live in the area but moved away.

The problem is, his parents EXPECT us to get a house with a full second bathroom (rather than a half), and at least four bedrooms, since we want kids and his parents want their own dedicated room.

For the amount we want to pay, that just is not possible.

My husband and I are both fine completely ignoring it for right now, but how do we handle it once we're at closing and they throw a fit? We've expressed in the past that it isn't possible -- and invited them house shopping with us, so they can see what we can afford in the area -- and all we hear in response is what they need for when they come to visit.

I KNOW (based on experience) I'll be blamed for caring more about my family than my husband's, but it truly is just about not being willing to spend $50,000-$100,000 past our budget to accommodate their wants.

—House-Buying

I don't know whether to laugh or ... laugh really hard. “Sure, here's a $100,000 bathroom for you to use every 10th Saturday night, and Mom-o-grammed hand towels, too.”

I guess I should be grateful that people keep finding gawkable new ways to go completely out of their minds.

Here's how to handle it: Buy the best house you can comfortably afford; close on the best house you can comfortably afford; respond to criticism with, “We bought the best house we could comfortably afford”; respond to fits with “______.”

Inappropriate reactions get crickets, always.

If any blame lands on you, then that's on your husband -- it's his job to be the dropcloth for their parental fits. Stay calm and be assured: Their demands are not, not about you.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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