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As an enlightened parent raising children in the second decade of the 21st century, I’m sure you work hard not to make your child feel like a bad kid.

Unlike our Victorian ancestors, you know there really isn’t such a thing as a “bad” 3-year-old, or 5-year-old or even 10-year-old. A small child is a seething bundle of needs and impulses. Which can make your life very difficult indeed. But you know she’s not doing it on purpose. It’s just her nature.

Of course it’s your job to teach her to control her impulses.

But a child who thinks she’s bad is not going to be very interested self-improvement.

She has to raise her defensive walls high to protect her ego from messages that feel critical. Which means she’s not really listening to you.

Hunkered down to protect herself, she’s not going to have the flexibility of mind that people need to try out new behavior. If she feels really bad about herself, she’ll feel hopeless about doing better. Which leads to a downward spiral of worse behavior and self-esteem.

But when your child’s overall feeling is that she’s loved and accepted, then she can relax and trust you enough to try out new behavior.

So when your child throws a tantrum over getting in her car seat, the best thing you can do is to send the message, “You’re wonderful and Mommy loves you so much, and there’s just this one little thing that’s a problem that you need to work on.”

Why am I giving you this parenting skills review? Because in a lot of ways, we adults aren’t all that different.

We have a huge need to feel loved and accepted by our partners.

And it’s all too easy to feel “all bad” when we’re on the receiving end of criticism.

We have more emotional strength than a 3-year-old, of course. (Most of the time!) For a child, her self-esteem and her parents’ opinion are one and the same thing. She doesn’t have any other information to draw on. As adults, we have more perspective and more choice over the information we choose to believe.

But the depth of our need to feel loved and accepted by our mate can be quite childlike in its intensity. And so is the pain we feel when it doesn’t happen.

If you’re like most of us, when you get angry, you skip over the love and acceptance part, and go straight for the criticism.

What your partner hears is the adult version of “I’m a bad kid.” Something like “Nothing I do is right,” “I can’t make her happy,” or even “I’m a failure as a husband.”

You probably won’t destroy his self-esteem wholesale, as you would with a small child. But you can take some big chunks out of it.

The answer is not to stop raising issues, of course. It’s to make sure the messages of love you send outweigh the messages of criticism. Here are some specific ideas for you to try.

First, try to look at your partner with a more appreciative eye.

As the child experts say, “Catch the child being good.” A steady diet of appreciation creates a softer landing for the criticisms you do deliver.

Tuning into your partner’s efforts is especially helpful. There’s usually a lot more effort going into a person’s actions than we can see from the outside. When your partner gets the feeling you see some of that invisible effort, he feels much more understood.

Second, be curious about what your spouse has on her plate.

We all carry a to-do list around in our heads, with our most urgent items on top, in flashing red lights. How we feel about ourselves and our day has a lot to do with who we feel is winning-us or the list.

When you’re in tune with your partner’s list, she feels like she has, well, a real partner. Someone who’s walking through her day with her, helping and supporting her.

Lastly, when you do raise a complaint, acknowledge the difficulty.

“I know you had that big report due on Monday and it really cut into your time, so I picked up the slack with the yard work. But do you think next weekend you could help out more?” Again, you’re showing your partner that you’re paying attention to the challenges he’s dealing with, not just your own needs.

Grown-up life can get endlessly complicated. But you can simplify some problems quite quickly when you remember that old or young, we all really need the same thing.

By Claire Hatch