When I was a child, I had a nightly front-row seat to my parents’ explosive arguments. My mother would verbally attack my father with accusations and threats, while at times, smashing dishes. My father would shout back at first and then storm out of the house. I felt scared and unprotected. This went on until my father finally moved out just before my 13th birthday.
As a parent and human behavior geek, I’ve come to learn that kids are like sponges. They are constantly watching and absorbing what we do and how we relate to others. This is where they begin to learn how to relate to the world and the people around them.
According to this eye-opening article, kids pay close attention to their parents’ emotions for information about how safe they are in the family, and when parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.
According to E. Mark Cummings, a psychologist at Notre Dame University and co-author of Marital Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective, it’s the way conflict is expressed and resolved, and especially how it makes children feel, that has the most significant consequences for children.
The Most Destructive Types of Fighting
Marital Conflict and Children identifies the kinds of destructive tactics that parents use with each other that harm children:
- Threats of abandonment (such as divorce)
- Physical aggression, like hitting, pushing, and throwing things
- Avoidance like walking out, sulking, or withdrawing from an argument
- Capitulation, giving in that might look like a solution but isn’t a true one.
One study pointed to by Cummings showed that the long-term effects of withdrawal by parents are actually more disturbing to kids’ adjustment because open conflict tells kids what’s going on and they can work with that. But when parents withdraw and become emotionally unavailable, kids don’t know what’s going on. They just know things are wrong, which is worse.
Effects on kids
When parents repeatedly engage in open hostility, kids can become distraught, worried, anxious, and hopeless. They might react outwardly with anger and become aggressive which can lead to behavior problems at home and at school.
Open hostility can cause kids to develop sleep problems, headaches, and stomachaches, or they may get sick frequently. High levels of stress can interfere with their ability to pay attention, which can create learning and academic problems at school.
Kids raised in destructive households often have problems forming healthy, balanced relationships with their peers and siblings with problems ranging from overly involved and overprotective or distant and disengaged.
What can help
According to this post by Dr. Luis Rojas Marcos, psychiatrist, here are some of the things we need to do if we want our children to be happy and healthy individuals:
- Be emotionally available to connect with children and teach them self-regulation and social skills:
- Become an emotional regulator or coach for your children. Teach them how to recognize and manage their own frustrations and anger.
- Connect emotionally – smile, hug, kiss, tickle, read, dance, jump, play or cuddle with them.
It can be difficult to do these things when locked in destructive conflict with the other parent. It might therefore help to work with a therapist who specializes in family relationships and conflict to develop a path forward.
As I got older, I developed a sense that there had to be a better way to handle conflict than the one I grew up with. My own parents’ conflict no longer has the hold on me that it once did, thanks to an awful lot of hard work, but it is an ongoing process that requires a commitment to do better for my own family.
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