Impatient husband
August 20, 2007 1:03 PM   Subscribe

My husband is impatient towards our 4 year old. Will he change or is our marriage doomed?

My husband used to be very patient. I am not always an easy person to be with, yet he is always patient with me. When our daughter was born and when she was a toddler, things were still good. I saw other people's marriages suffer when a child was born, but our marriage blossomed. He was a great dad, he played with our child, helped me, never ever complained.

Over the last few months, that has changed. In my opinion, he expects too much from a four year old, and he expresses his frustration the wrong way. He never hits her and doesn't yell, but he sighs and gets irritated about even the simplest things and they get into a lot of power struggles that seem totally unecessary from my point of view. He is also quite inconsistent. He tells her that she cannot do something. She screams, and then he may or may not let her do it anyway. I am not a perfect parent by far. I also have a hard time sometimes, especially at the end of the day when I am tired, but it seems that how I react when I am at my worst, is normal for him.

I start to dislike the weekends and prefer the time that he is at work. That is so unlike me! I used to love our time together. He was between jobs when our child was smaller and it was the best time of our marriage.

We talked about it and he admits he is more irritabe now, but that does not seem to change anything. I am pretty sure he is not depressed. He has a good job and things are actually less stressful than a few years ago. We do not have any financial problems or other things that would explain his impatientness. He still has much more patience with me than with our daughter.

I wonder: is four just a difficult age for some people? Do you think it is likely that things will just get better when she is a little older? General relationship tips are also welcome, but please note that therapy is not an option. We are not in the US.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think that four is just a difficult age, you ought to talk with our husband about how you feel, but it doesn't seem like he is doing anything bad here.
posted by BobbyDigital at 1:08 PM on August 20, 2007

I'm hardly an expert here, as I'm not a parent, but I suspect your daughter is testing the boundaries of her world, and trying to see how far she can push the rules being imposed on her. Dad appears to be taking a disciplinarian role with her, and of course, she's resisting.

Would you guys consider talking it over between you, agreeing on what her boundaries are, and then making those clear to your daughter? She's old enough now to understand the concept of consequences.

I truly think it's a phase she's going through.
posted by LN at 1:24 PM on August 20, 2007

I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss depression out of hand--sometimes it is situational, but sometimes it is really just chemical and even when things are going well, depression can set in. That being said, is there anything else that has changed for him recently? Different sleeping patterns, different responsibilities at work, other things that seem to set him off?

What in particular is irritating him about your daughter's behavior? Can he articulate that? Is it all the time or only just late in the day or when they are doing a certain thing? Little girls can be awfully trying :) Is she a big talker (like NEVER shuts up? Cute for a bystander, not so much for a parent). Dads can have expectations for little ones that are a bit out of line for their actual abilities, and little ones can really be excellent manipulators.

I know you can't answer, I just thought I'd throw some questions out you might want to consider.
posted by thebrokedown at 1:24 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Beyond talking about it, have you discussed the level of what you consider acceptable in raising your child? It's one thing for him to admit that he's irritable, but perhaps the two of you need to decide, together, how you want to approach this. If consistency is important to you, can you discuss how you want both of you to act towards your child, what to permit and when, etc.? If your child is being difficult, can you set out guidelines for your behavior, so that instead of thinking, "I'm being irritable," he can work with the more concrete thought of, "Oh, I am going to try not to sigh when our child does this, even if I feel irritated"?
I'm not a parent, but in my relationships I find it helpful to be specific about behaviors rather than moods or attitudes.
posted by bassjump at 1:35 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Although my child is a year younger than yours I think this range (3-6ish) is very difficult age because children are intellectually developed enough that you feel like you can reason with them but their behavior is still very emotional and impulsive and they lack control.

I also think (as a full-time stay at home father) that it is probably harder for the parent that is not there all the time (although this might seem counterintuitive). When you deal with it all the time it becomes normal, you are aware of the child's natural behavioral rhythms and so forth. Whereas the at-work parent comes out of a totally different environment and is kind of assaulted with the child's behavior.

Finally, I think children often behave differently when the not-there-all-the-time parent is present, including being more wound up - maybe because of the relative novelty or trying to get more attention out of the less time.

That said, being irritable and impatient all the time with a child is clearly not good, and inconsistency over behavior, while hard to avoid entirely, clearly sends a bad message that rewards persistent bad behavior. Really your only recourse is to communicate more about this. Maybe you need to try to get deeper into what is causing the change in your husband's attitude, maybe he needs you to show some sympathy for his frustration but also make it clear that it is having a negative impact on your ability to enjoy being with him. I think this is a very important aspect of relationship communication we often neglect (to appear not to be selfish or something maybe): the personal impact. The fact that a behavior is making us sad/annoyed/anxious.

My wife and I routinely get on each other's case (in a nice way) about being consistent because it is very easy to give into a whiny toddler when you just want the noise to stop, and everybody does it sometimes. We try to communicate and have a single game plan on how to deal with things so that mixed messages happen less often.

Perhaps you were just exaggerating, but I was struck by your asking if your marriage was "doomed" over really pretty mild - unpleasant and annoying, but hardly catastrophic - behavior that has only been going on a few months. Even if it were a sort of joke it seems very harsh and extreme and made me wonder if there is more going on in your relationship and you are feeding emotions from other issues into this one and making something more general all about your husband's relationship with your child.
posted by nanojath at 1:47 PM on August 20, 2007 [5 favorites]

Yeah I don't really get the "doomed" sense out of this either. And if he is irritable, so what? Your kid will get more mature as they get older, and then they'll become a teenager! Won't that be fun!
posted by delmoi at 2:09 PM on August 20, 2007

Inconsistency is a problem. Would he consider reading stuff about parenting? Tanya Byron's work has been useful to me.
posted by paduasoy at 2:22 PM on August 20, 2007

I have a four year old daughter and would recommend he reads and gets a better understanding of what your daughter's behavior is all about. It can be frustrating when you don't understand what's going on in their little minds.

I would also agree with nanojath that there may be more going on based on your reaction to what sounds annoying but ultimately solvable.
posted by cell divide at 2:32 PM on August 20, 2007

My daughter is four right now, and "impatient" would be a very polte word for how I feel about this phase in her development. Luckily for me, her mother is a lot better than I am at maintaining her cool when four-year-old boundaries are being pushed and four-year-old opinions are being expressed (usually at 135 decibels), and she's wonderful about taking over when I'm approaching my limits.

Some guys are better equipped for this stage than others. Possibly your husband is like me, and he's struggling. If that might be the case, you can either step in an shoulder some of his half of the parenting when he starts getting frustrated, with the understanding that some day he's likely to do the same for you when you run up against the limits of your patience. Be partners working together on a very long and difficult project that doesn't have a clear set of instructions.

Or you can leave him. But I'd suggest thats not the best option.
posted by lekvar at 2:32 PM on August 20, 2007

He's depressed, perhaps even mentally tormented about something. Something is getting at his brain, and it probably has nothing to do with the child.

You need to sit down with him and ask him what else is going on in his life. It may be something you don't know about.
posted by JaySunSee at 2:36 PM on August 20, 2007

If he was great with your daughter and then suddenly not great, SOMETHING HAS CHANGED IN HIS LIFE.

It could be job problems. Or he's reached the age when a parent or sibling died. Or investments have gone sour. Or the adjustable mortgage rate has spiked. Or he'd been having chest pains or a toothache.

It's very important to explore what's going on.

A friend who had a late child (when he and his wife were in their 40s) kept himself sane by inverting things. He knew what his son was trying to do, but wasn't at all frustrated that the kid couldn't do it yet. Instead, he was charmed by the little guy's effort, combined with the knowledge that he would get it right eventually.

Your daughter is experimenting with how to relate to adults and get her way. If your husband can see it as her learning and practicing, rather than trying to monopolize his attention (which she's certainly also doing), he can help her do it better, and say, from time to time, "Sweetheart, I know you want to talk, but Daddy needs to be quiet right now. I need your help to do that. Can you please help Daddy by playing with your dolls for a while? Then we'll get back together."
posted by KRS at 2:43 PM on August 20, 2007

so...things were great before, when he wasn't working...

now he is working and stress is beginning to pile up?

do you work all day?

he may need some time alone after work to unwind
posted by Salvatorparadise at 2:55 PM on August 20, 2007

Or, you know, like lekvar said, he could just think that this age range is really annoying. Which, to be fair, it is to a lot of people. Who knows, he might be the one who steps up in adolescence when the OP is about ready to run screaming into the night.

I was always under the impression that one of the great benefits of a two-parent system is that there is someone to pick up some of the burden when the other one is having a hard time. It's never equal, all the time, and relationships without kids go through phases where someone in the relationship goes through a hard time, or is frustrated/stressed/etc. and needs extra support, and I can only imagine the situation gets magnified times 100 when a kid enters into the mix. Sure, you love them, but talk about all-time stressors.

I can't believe that everyone loves all phases of childhood all the time equally, so maybe he's just not good with the late-toddler/young child time.

Your best bet would be to talk about it, and not from an accusatory standpoint of "WHY DO YOU HATE OUR CHILD" but a "I've noticed you've seemed more stressed out lately - is there something going on, and what can I do to make things easier on you?"
posted by mckenney at 2:59 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

My wife and I routinely get on each other's case (in a nice way) about being consistent because it is very easy to give into a whiny toddler when you just want the noise to stop, and everybody does it sometimes. We try to communicate and have a single game plan on how to deal with things so that mixed messages happen less often.

This is key. You have to be a team, and part of being a team is giving your teammates constructive criticism. Certainly you want to avoid it in front of the kiddo, but after bedtime, my wife and I often critique each other's parenting hits and misses of the day. Part of it is accepting criticism (in fact, we usually start with something like, "Sorry about getting a bit snippy over the spilled juice, but we had just talked about the importance of paying attention to where we put the cup when we are done drinking, so it was a little frustrating.")

You might also want to try some positive reinforcement, too. Complement him on the days he is a super dad, or even refer back to how well he dealt with the Terrible Twos.

I will also add that I have had much more frustration with the 4-6 range than I did with the 2-4 range.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:11 PM on August 20, 2007

As far as the 'is my marriage doomed' thing goes, I would like to point out that even if you two divorce, your husband will, if he is at all decent, still see and interact with your daughter. Any attitudes of his towards her that you don't like will not necessarily change.
posted by frobozz at 4:05 PM on August 20, 2007

It is not just your husband who's changing. Your daughter is changing rapidly and she's supposed to, that's what being four is about. Therefore, what worked for you and your husband might not work the same when you are dealing with your little girl, and the rules keep changing because she is growing. Paraphrasing the comment of a school psych, "she has the right to be four years old". Her development will include ramps of increasing ability, plateaux and back-sliding.

If your husband has the need for consistency then this might be difficult for him because little kids are supposed to be inconsistent - else they would not be growing up and that is worse. My guess is he doesn't know what to do and what he tries doesn't work all the time, so perhaps he is upset about that.
posted by jet_silver at 4:43 PM on August 20, 2007

I'm Daddy to a 4-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy.

He talks too much, she doesn't talk enough, and they both explore boundaries liberally.

It's hard to be patient with them, but here are our ground rules:

1. If we don't have a rule for it yet, the kid slides the first time. No penalty, but we talk about it and usually create a rule.
2. If we do have a rule, and the kid breaks it, it's time out or a spank, depending on severity.
3. When telling the kid something is wrong, we cool down, get on the kid's eye level, and speak calmly. We also get confirmation from the kid that he/she understands the rule by having him/her repeat to us what's ok and what isn't ok.
4. We yell sometimes, but we try to keep it to a minimum.
5. The wife and I gently remind each other when things are getting too intense. If things are getting out of control, the angrier one of us will take a break and leave the area until things calm down. Sometimes parents have a hard time behaving properly, just like kids do.
6. Our kids know that if they get a "No" from Mommy and then ask Daddy to try to get a "Yes," they're in big trouble. If they try to play us against one another, it's a spanking.
7. We don't hold back in public places or around friends or family. I'm proud that I use timeout and (sparingly) spank my kids. They know that we won't make exceptions in public or around certain people, so the kids don't either.

That's really about it. I've had periods when it's hard to keep my temper in check, particularly with the boy, who's getting mouthier by the day. But he and I are still buddies, and since I try extra hard to keep cool, everyone stays happier in the end.

And please don't take any of the above to mean that we're perfect parents or I'm the best Dad ever. Obviously, I screw up. But we have standards and rules in place, and we all do our best. That's the point.

posted by SlyBevel at 5:29 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

And I should add to the above...

Our house and lives aren't all about's just what we do when there's a problem.
posted by SlyBevel at 5:31 PM on August 20, 2007

This from nanojath upthread is really a valuable thought, in my opinion -- worth excerpting for another look:

Perhaps you were just exaggerating, but I was struck by your asking if your marriage was "doomed" over really pretty mild - unpleasant and annoying, but hardly catastrophic - behavior that has only been going on a few months. Even if it were a sort of joke it seems very harsh and extreme and made me wonder if there is more going on in your relationship and you are feeding emotions from other issues into this one and making something more general all about your husband's relationship with your child.

And I disagree with those who suggest that your husband must be depressed or experiencing external stressors that he is bringing home. A four-year-old, as you are hearing, is all the stressor one needs. Like mckenney said, no parent is going to absolutely love all phases of childhood best.

It sounds to me like your husband is challenged by the idea that your daughter, though speaking and thinking and walking and using utensils and all that, is still not actually an adult yet. I know that sounds overly simplistic, but it's really quite natural for parents to forget that children are physically incapable of processing ideas and reasoning the same way that we can. Their brains just aren't there yet.

The power struggles are the big sign, to me; the child is discovering the concepts of authority and rebellion, and consequently is looking to reject an authority -- which naturally the parent just takes for granted. Of course he's right, he's the dad... how on earth can anyone argue with such a self-evident truth?

You might all benefit from a book called Love and Logic: Magic for Early Childhood, which is the book covering birth to age six for a parenting concept that helps you eliminate power struggles from the household. We started using it when our daughter was six, at the recommendation of a child therapist, and it truly has made all the difference. We're onto "Love and Logic for Teens" now.

(On preview re SlyBevel's post, I don't know what the OP's preferences are vis-a-vis spanking and yelling, but the L&L system doesn't allow for those options. Their theory is that demonstrating anger via corporal punishment or yelling merely affirms to the child that the parent has lost control, ergo the child is winning the power struggle.)
posted by pineapple at 5:34 PM on August 20, 2007

A four year old girl is one of the most annoying beings on the universe. And I am a pretty patient person much of the time.

Do let hubby know that any rewarding of whining is BADBADBAD. You do that, and you are creating a monster.

Other than that, try not to worry too much about it. She won't be this age forever. And (as a veteran mom of three kids who were really way too close together) I can vouch for the fact that every six months kids go into a different stage. The difficult ones alternate with easier ones.
posted by konolia at 5:42 PM on August 20, 2007

A four year old girl is one of the most annoying beings on the universe.

Unfortunately, so true.

...any rewarding of whining is BADBADBAD. You do that, and you are creating a monster.

Seconded. NEVER reward bad behavior. You'll just get more of it, and stronger.
posted by SlyBevel at 5:56 PM on August 20, 2007

No matter what, talk to your husband. Give him a chance to see what effect his behavior is having on you, but also try to understand his point of view.

From what you described, he is trying pretty hard to keep it together. Like it has been states quite a few times above, you guys are a team, and it is probably best to keep thinking that way. When one of you guys is getting (inevitably) irritated, the other should jump in and bail the other out, give them a break. It will take some getting used to your child as she grows up because she will change quite a bit.

In terms of irritability, I sympathize with your husband, because I used to be quite irritable and it eroded away a very important relationship I had. Once I realized the damage had been done, I changed, but it was too late for that relationship and I was devastated. If I had known what effect I was having, things would have been quite different, and although I admit it was my own failing, I wish I had been given the opportunity to to change before it was too late.

If you love him, talk to him. Be kind, be honest, and I hope he will see how important it is for him to acknowledge the effect this is having on your relationship. Also, be understanding. Just like you have not brought this up with him, there may be something bothering him as well, which may be leading to the irritability.

Best of luck.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 6:11 PM on August 20, 2007

Re: Pineapple's response to spanking = out of control

I think that it has a lot to do with the attitude spanking/timeout is approached with. If it's "Why you little...!", a la Simpsons, then yeah, you've got an out-of-control element going on there.

But if the attitude is more "What did you do, and what is the consequence?", then the entire tone of the thing can be changed.

And yelling is never condoned here, it just happens every once in a while out of frustration. When we do yell, we apologize to the kids. We don't think that's ok.
posted by SlyBevel at 7:03 PM on August 20, 2007

I'm completely confused as to why you would think that your marriage is doomed because your husband huffs at your daughter in frustration. It seems to me as if you might have the issues. Was this hyperbole?
posted by allthewhile at 7:18 PM on August 20, 2007

Watching family videos from when I was around 4-5 is hilarious because whenever my dad and I interact on camera, it's clear that we totally hate each other.

The funny thing is, I don't even remember this. My dad and I have always gotten along as far as I can recall. But I guess there were a couple years there where he really could not take the annoying little bundle of girlish weird that was a 4-year-old crinklebat.

Give him a couple of years to get over it. I'm sure it's profoundly hard to take, but little girls can be just obnoxious beyond all measure.
posted by crinklebat at 11:34 PM on August 20, 2007

One thing that I have found is key as a parent is time to decompress from work before I start dealing with the kids.

I had to ask outright for 5-10 minutes every night to go to the bathroom and sort through the mail before anyone speaks to me because otherwise, walking in the door at night was an absolute shitstorm and I did not respond to it well. Drama begets drama.

Perhaps the dynamic of your husband being back at work (not sure if you work too?) is just requiring a sorting-out of routines as a starting point.

I would also stress the importance of a true mental disconnect from work while at home. Even a good job can stay on your mind if you don't make it go away. For me personally, I find I am much more impatient with the kids when I'm trying to think about something else.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 3:43 AM on August 21, 2007

Your marriage may well be doomed if you don't get some perspective and stop thinking of this brief interlude of change in your husband's behavior as some sort of referendum on his worth as a husband and father. Jeez.
posted by OmieWise at 6:43 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Anon, I really understand what you're talking about. Email in profile, ping me and I'd be happy to talk about it with you.
posted by Andrhia at 10:21 AM on August 21, 2007

It's interesting that you bring this up, because there's a guy who brings his daughter into my library pretty often and does the same kind of thing.

She is about 4 and she likes to come in and use our early literacy computer (which kids just think is FUN GAMES).
Her dad will stand behind her and constantly criticize what she's doing, like "Josie, come ON! Don't put it THERE! THINK! Why are you playing THIS game??" and on and on.
I mean, she is a kid playing a game! Let her just figure it out!

She is really not doing anything wrong or annoying in the slightest. I really worry that he will be causing her to have horrible issues with self-confidence in the future, although she doesn't seem fazed by it in the least.

I know most people's comments have been "aw, don't worry, 4-year-olds just ARE annoying", but really, this guy is out of line.

So if you're reading this, Josie's Dad, please Calm The Hell Down. Thanks.

This is also why I don't want to have kids of my own--I'm sure I would be the same way.
posted by exceptinsects at 12:03 PM on August 21, 2007

is our marriage doomed? Do keep in mind that he is her father for life, so better to stay happily married where the 2 of you can parent together, than divorce, and have him parent on his own part of the time, perhaps not so well.

Irritability is one of the signs of depression. The Depression self-assessment is a useful tool.

Get some library books on parenting. There's a Your 4 year old that will help you recognize age-appropriate behavior.

Try to help him be a great parent, but also encourage him to have his own relationship with his daughter. He can take her on walks, go out for breakfast, and especially, share his own interests with her, whether it's music or car repair. The value to both of them of having a relationship of their own is huge. It requires that you back off a bit, which is likely to encourage him to improve his parenting.

I so wish my Dad had taken that kind of time, but he was really busy, and he didn't know how, and my Mom was in charge of kids & house.
posted by theora55 at 3:49 PM on August 21, 2007

I have only skimmed the previous comments, but there is one thing that I feel needs added, he needs to seriously evaluate if he needs professional help.

For several years I had some problems with anxiety, when I did finally talk to a Dr. about it they put me on a med that has helped immensely. There was a period where I didn't smile period. I wasn't happy. I was NOT depressed, I just was worried all the time. I chalked it up to some financial problems we had at the time and the wake up call came after I got a significantly better job. Most of our problems disappeared and I still worried all the time. I snapped at things that don't really matter. I hated when the children didn't obey and yelled at them. Now I take a pill right before bed and my stress is at (what I would call) a normal level.
posted by TheDukeofLancaster at 9:37 AM on August 22, 2007

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