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‘Our son says we argue a lot and it upsets him. This came as a complete shock’

Ask the Expert: ‘We argue very little, just on small things like what to cook, and we have a loving relationship’


We have been happily married for 10 years. We are immigrants in Ireland, and have no family around. We have some family friends (from our community whom we meet and hang out with on weekends) and have three children; the eldest is nine.

My husband and I are extremely happy in our marriage. We have no major conflicts, a loving relationship, and agree on almost everything. We have never yelled or screamed at each other. There is no emotional or physical abuse. There are no financial problems. We have a very good system and plan out things together, in agreement. We are attentive to our children. Never neglect them. Always prioritise them in life. Our children are thriving in school – they are well-mannered, confident kids. In short, I would not change a thing about my circumstances. We are well respected in the community. Both of us have thriving careers and achieved a lot in professional life because I believe we support each other a lot.

In the last couple of weeks my older son said to me that his father and I argue a lot and that it makes him upset. This came as a complete shock to me, because we argue very little, just on small things like what to cook and what type of furniture to buy. More than arguments, they are discussions, like a very normal couple. We have never disrespected each other, never said hurtful words to each other. My son’s words hurt me so much. Because he seems to be unhappy in what I think is ideal. He also said that he would never want to get married because of this reason.

I think this is because he hasn’t seen the bad side of the world, where people are much unhappier in their lives compared to us. I feel he isn’t exposed to couples who have bad relationships. My own childhood was spent seeing major disagreements between my parents. There were times they wouldn’t speak to each other for months. My sister is in an abusive relationship, but my son has hardly met them, as we live in different countries. I also closely work with victims of domestic violence and I have personally seen a lot of suffering in families. We are not even close to that. I am shocked that my son thinks this way about us. I tried to ask him to pinpoint the time we argued and he felt bad, he couldn’t explain further.


Please guide me how to tell my child that we are a normal, happy family, with more ups than downs. That we are happier than most people around us. I have always practised gratitude. I am hurt to see him growing up thinking there is something not right, whereas both me and his father have given everything our best.


Being criticised by your children can hurt, especially when you feel it is unfounded or when it centres on something you hold very dear. However, it is important to take a step back and to put things into context as you think how you might respond.

There are two perspectives that may be helpful to you in understanding your son’s criticisms. At nine years of age, he is likely to be entering puberty and adolescence. At this stage of life he can begin to think in more complex ways and look outside the family for values and ideas.

Frequently, young adolescents become idealistic and critical of their parents and their family culture – this is a normal stage of growing up and is important on the road to independence. Even if their criticisms are unfounded it is good that they can air and debate them with their parents. In addition, it could also be that your son is a very sensitive child. Though they might seem like trivial matters, he could be genuinely upset about your minor rows with your husband. Perhaps he finds conflict of any shape or form hard to witness. Once again, it is good that he can air and express these feelings so you can support him in understanding.

Avoid being defensive

To help your son understand you, the first step is to avoid being defensive when he offers a criticism. You might be tempted to snap, “How dare you say that”, but it will be better to respond calmly and respectfully. With perhaps an air of curiosity and ask some open questions: “In what way does it upset you?” or “What in particular upsets you?”, “Tell me more about what you feel”. The goal is to draw him out and to listen to his thoughts and feelings. Remember, there could be other worries on his mind that will be good for him to get off his shelf. Once you understand exactly what he thinks and feels then you will be able to best choose how to respond.

Offer your perspective

Once you have listened, he will be more open to listen to you. Then you can offer your perspective and opinion on what he has said. For example, you might say something like: “I’m sorry you were upset, but I think you might have misunderstood things… Dad and I get on very well, and a couple of small rows don’t change that – in fact it is good that we talk about what we disagree about.”

It may also be appropriate to share some of your feelings of hurt: “It hurts me a little when you say that, because we have a good marriage”, though be careful about making him feel guilty about sharing his feelings. Once you have shared your view, ask him: “What do you think?” You are trying to encourage an open debate and communication. That will be the best way to resolve things.

Finally, in your question you mention about the challenges in your own childhood and I wondered if that explains some of the hurt you might be feeling. It could be that your son’s behaviour is triggering some unresolved issues for you. If that is the case, you might consider getting some support around this by taking time to talk through the issues with a friend or a counsellor.

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John Sharry is Clinical Director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See