Meet Kyle and Marsha Kline Pruett. Leading researchers in co-parenting and experts in child psychiatry and psychology (respectively), they’ve co-authored several books together and are featured contributors in HelloJoey’s kit about co-parenting and divorce. Individually, Marsha serves as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the Smith College School for Social Work and as Social Science editor of the Family Court Review, while Kyle is a practicing child psychiatrist, a clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center, and a writer for Psychology Today.
In a poignant example of how parents never stop bragging about their kids no matter how old they get, the Pruetts found their way to ParentLab after Kyle had a casual conversation with HelloJoey Expert Relations Director Peter Walsh’s dad. A fellow Yale professor and singer, Peter’s father told Kyle all about ParentLab and his son’s involvement with the company – and then asked permission to make introductions. Marsha and Kyle have been working with Peter and the rest of the team ever since.
To help you learn a little more about this dynamic duo, we asked Kyle and Marsha to reveal some of what they’ve discovered after decades of working with parents – and being parents themselves. Here, they share a few tried and true tips for diffusing conflict, express the hopes they have for families in the future, and reveal exactly what happened when their own bickering kids pushed them to follow through on that age-old parent threat, “Don’t make me pull over this car!”
What’s something you constantly find surprising about how parents interact with their kids?
With little ones, we are often surprised by how eager parents are for their children to be more grown up than they are and to have skills or abilities that aren’t yet developed. This often stems from delight in them and wanting the contact to be more verbal and mutual – and sometimes from lack of knowledge about developmental milestones.
With older children, it’s surprising how difficult it is for parents to feel their own authority – to feel comfortable setting limits, be the “adult,” and follow through when it is difficult but necessary to do so. Younger parents put a lot of emphasis on being “friends” with their children, which makes the use of their natural authority harder to use.
What’s the most common worry parents have when separating – and how do you address it?
It is almost always, “How will this affect my kids?”
: Your children will be fine if the two of you can treat each other gently and continue to help each other be the best parents you can be, separately and in cooperation.
Why is high conflict between parents (regardless of marital status) so damaging for kids?
When parents put so much energy into conflict, they have less energy, time, and sensitivity to put into their parenting. Conflict sets up an atmosphere of family instability and emotional volatility. This puts everyone on edge, elicits fight or flight responses, and makes it hard to empathize and be generous in the kinds of ways that produce smooth upbringing.
Parental fighting leads kids to feel like they have to take sides, mediate, or protect one parent, siblings or themselves. It also leads to high distress and anxiety that whittles away at children’s well-being and mental health.
Are there tried and true techniques to diffuse conflict and get communication back on track?
The old standards still work best. Take a time out and let some time and boundaries bring down the temperature. Wait until you are both less angry. You will have a more productive conversation if everyone is cooled down.
Next, move your relationship to a business arrangement – which author Bill Eddy describes as being BIFF: Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. Only talk about the children and logistics, not your personal lives. Choose your timing and place carefully so that what other people are thinking or feeling is not a concern and posturing is less likely.
We often ask people to write down what it is they want from each other and what they are able to offer, and begin the conversation at that starting point.
Have you had personal success with any of the recommendations you offer families?
We rarely struggle with each other these days. It gets easier as your children get older, but when we are angry with each other, listening before speaking and staying focused on the issues we are fighting about (and not enlarging the circle of topics) always helps us resolve the issue more quickly.
Will you share a funny story or anecdote about your work or your practice?
A favorite story: We often teach that fathers (roughly speaking) tend more to the side of being clear and concise in their discipline, while mothers encourage processing or discussion. One day our kids were fighting in the back seat, and it escalated to a point we couldn’t tolerate it anymore. Kyle pulled the car over, put his face in the window and said sternly, “Enough!” The kids got quiet, and he got back in the car and started driving.
Marsha leaned over the front seat and said, “I don’t know why you two have to treat each other this way. What on earth makes you think that is a way to behave with each other?” Our son started in, “Well, [sister] started it.” Then she shot back, “I did not. You went and…” and before we knew it, they were arguing again. Kyle said to Marsha, “Why did you open it back up?” She responded defensively, “I wanted them to think about what they were doing and to understand why they were doing it.” Kyle replied, “I don’t care why they were doing it. It was time to stop doing it. Sometimes the why doesn’t matter.”
Marsha thought the “why” almost always matters, but after a few miles she thought about what Kyle had done, how effective it was in the moment, and how it didn’t have to be her way. Back on the road, we had all moved on to planning lunch.
What are you most hoping will change in the world of mental health to benefit families or children?
More appreciation and reverence for the importance of family life at every government and employer level. Support for ways to be together, to have enough money to live comfortably so that free time is not only at holidays, for new parents with time off with their baby, for parents with sick children, to live as three generations, and in the workplace for employees to put their families first.