No kid wants to see her parents fight. But remember, it’s what you do after that matters more. Learn more on how you can remedy the situation here.
What can you read in this article?
- Parental conflict impact on a child
- How to talk to your child about the fight
- What you want your child to see after the fight
All couples fight. It’s inevitable. But did you know that not only is this causing problems in your married life but can also have a negative effect on your child? Especially if she was there to witness the whole thing.
As parents, we teach our children not to fight. We tell them to control their anger when they’re upset about something, and we want them to learn positive ways of dealing with conflict. Fighting, arguing, or raising voices are discouraged when having misunderstandings with their siblings.
But what if the child gets caught in the unfortunate situation of seeing her parents fight?
Sometimes, we just get so caught up in the heat of the moment that we don’t care who’s around us. So we raise our voice or lose our cool with our spouse in front of our children. And that’s the time we stop and think, “Will my child be okay?”
Parents fighting – effect on a child
It’s not rocket science that a child’s environment at home has an effect on his long-term mental health and development. So if you’re wondering if your child will be affected by the fight he just witnessed, the answer is most probably yes.
How parents respond or treat each other is also seen as a barometer for children in telling whether their home is a safe place for them.
According to E. Mark Cummings, a psychologist at Notre Dame University who wrote a lot of research papers on this topic, kids are very sensitive when parents fight. They can sense when things are getting heated, and the effect it has on them can be detrimental.
“Kids pay close attention to their parents’ emotions for information about how safe they are in the family,” he said. “When parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.”
Research suggests that the stress of being exposed to frequent situations when parents fight can create behavioral patterns that negatively affect kids later in life. This can include socialization, emotional management, and self-esteem.
Moreover, studies from the United Kingdom suggest that from as young as 6 months, children exposed to conflict may have increased heart rates and stress hormone responses.
Babies, children, and teenagers who grow up with parents who fight show signs of disrupted early brain development, sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, physical problems like headaches and stomachaches, and other serious problems as a result of living with severe or chronic inter-parental conflict.
The same effect was seen in children who are exposed to ongoing but less intense conflict, compared with children whose parents constructively negotiate or resolve conflicts.
Parents’ volatility to anger can also cause anxiety issues and obsessive-compulsive disorder in children.
How does parents fighting affect a teenager?
While you may think that they can just get used to it, sadly, research showed that even 19-year-olds remained sensitive to parental conflict, and it can continue to have a negative effect on how they deal with conflict and form healthy relationships with their peers.
Parents fighting – what you wouldn’t want your child to see
While it’s natural for couples to fight, and it’s inevitable for the children to know about it somehow, they still have to be wary of the message that they’re sending their kids.
“Conflict is a normal part of everyday experience, so it’s not whether parents fight that is important,” said Cummings.
“It’s how the conflict is expressed and resolved, and especially how it makes children feel, that has important consequences for children.”
In their book Marital Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective, Cummings and colleague Patrick Davies identified the kinds of destructive tactics that parents use with each other that can have a harmful effect on their children:
- Verbal aggression – name-calling, insults, and threats of abandonment
- Physical aggression – hitting, pushing, shoving, grasping
- Silent tactics – avoidance, walking out, sulking, or withdrawing from the other person
- Capitulation – giving in that might look like a solution but isn’t a true one
What kids see, they carry throughout their lives
You should always try to keep your anger down. But if you must fight, keep your fights with your spouse away from your kids. If fighting in front of your kids can’t be avoided, be prepared for the possibility that your kids will freak out when they see you angry.
“Children constantly learn from their environments, especially their primary relationships,” said Shanna Donhauser, a family therapist and childhood mental health specialist in Seattle.
“Rupture and conflict are inevitable. But repairing those ruptures strengthens relationships and builds the foundation of trust, comfort, and safety.”
It needs work — hard work — because acting like it didn’t happen is not a solution. In fact, according to Cummings, you children can tell right away when you’re “faking it.”
“When parents go behind closed doors and come out acting like they worked it out, the kids can detect that,” he said.
“They’ll see you’re pretending. And pretending is actually worse in some ways. Kids can tell the difference between a resolution that’s been forced versus one that’s resolved with positive emotion, and it matters.” he added.
In fact, it can only worsen the situation. Leaving your children to process the emotions they felt after seeing their parents fight or get angry can let them draw unhealthy conclusions.
How to console a child after parents fight
Donhauser identified four steps that can guide parents in helping their children work through the frightening experience of witnessing a parent’s anger.
Comfort your little one after a fight with your spouse. | Photo by Shutterstock
1. Calm down
You can’t calm anybody down if you’re the one who’s not calm. So before you even attempt to console a frightened child, you need to get a firm grip on your own emotions.
“It’s like the airline safety rule – ‘secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others,’” Donhauser explained. “You cannot support your child when you are still angry or in the process of calming down.”
If you’re having difficulty calming down or it’s just taking a long time, take a walk. Go to the gym. Obsessively clean the house. Just cool down. But remember to explain first to your child what’s happening, and what’s going to happen. Reassure them that you will talk to them about what happened after you calm down.
Parents should know how to empathize with their children. Do you remember those times when, as a child, you saw your parents (or any two adults in your life) fight in front of you? How did it make you feel? What did you wish they did for you to make you feel better?
If your kids have seen you angry, you should see the situation and the aftermath from their perspective. Any adult is bigger, stronger, louder, and scarier than them. Was there violence when you fought with your partner? Did either of you throw something across the room or break something?
“Don’t do this until you are calm,” warned Donhauser. “It will likely reactivate your emotions a little.”
Once you’re calm and have empathized enough with your child’s experience, make a sincere effort to reconnect with your child. Invite your child to sit in a safe and comfortable space. It’s a good start.
Some kids don’t want to directly talk to you about what happened. They will often want to play as they work through their emotions. And that’s fine.
“Share your intentions and emotions,” said Donhauser. “Then bring your child into the repair process so that they can co-create solutions to this problem.”
“Children are creative and often come up with great solutions when given the opportunity. When invited to create solutions, they are also more likely to remain cooperative and follow through,” she added.
Parents fight – how to talk to your child about it
Dr. Becky Kennedy, a renowned clinical psychologist and parents coach, believes that more than the argument, what’s more disturbing and what adds to a child’s anxiety is that no one is explaining what is happening and they are left in the dark.
“It’s not an argument that’s disturbing to kids as much as no one talking to them about the argument they just overheard,” she said.
Below, she shares a simple guide for explaining marital arguments to a child.
- Validate your child’s perception. “Daddy and I were talking and our big feelings came out as loud voices.”
- Provide a story to make sense of things (make sure to use age-appropriate words and tailor it so that she will understand).
- Explain that your child is not to blame. “You didn’t do anything to make us argue.”
- Assert your capability as a parent and reassure your child that you’re still a family after an argument. “You are safe and our family is safe.”
- Pause and encourage your child to voice their experience or feelings.
- Validate and respond with, “That makes sense,” or “That did feel scary to you, you really know that.”
”When we give a child a story to piece things together, a child feels better because they can tell their alert system, ‘Now that I understand what happened and feel connected to my parent, I’m safe,’” said Dr. Kennedy.
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After the previous step, you must find opportunities to connect with your child. Take her on a walk, bring her to the park or the mall, read a book together, or play together. Just do something that you both like — together.
Remember, this isn’t about making up for what happened. Put that thinking in the bin. When you do things together, it’s all about showing how the relationship is still strong despite what happened.
What you want your child to see after the fight
Parents must realize that a display of anger affects children on multiple levels. They not only feel physically threatened by how parents fight and get angry, but they feel that the relationship itself is also in danger.
According to Cumings, aside from talking to your child about what happened, it can actually help if your child sees that you and your spouse are actually resolving it and working on your issues together.
“When kids witness a fight and see the parents resolving it, they’re actually happier than they were before they saw it,” he said.
“It reassures kids that parents can work things through. We know this by the feelings they show, what they say, and their behavior—they run off and play. Constructive conflict is associated with better outcomes over time,” he added.
In fact, even if you and your partner don’t completely resolve the problem but find a partial solution, your kids will do fine, as long as they see that you are trying to find a solution together.
It’s important why parents must maintain control and show the kids that the dynamics at home haven’t changed. If they cannot maintain control, they have to consider seeking professional help. When you lose control, do not let ego take precedence over what’s important — your child and your relationship together.
Do not be afraid of admitting that you’ve lost control. Your child is more important, so make sure their feelings come first. It’s a parent’s duty to make difficult choices.
Republished with permission from theAsianParent Singapore.