6 Reasons to Stop Fighting in Front of Your Children
Everyone has conflict in relationships. Conflicts are necessary for change and growth, and just can’t be avoided, but all conflicts are not created equal. Whether you are married or divorced, the way you “fight” with other important adults in your child’s life has a lasting impact. Arguing over small daily details, or conflicting in a way that children are able to see parents disagree, make-up and still respect one another are appropriate and preferred to “never” allowing children to see conflicts between adults happen. However, having children witness conflicts that result in yelling, name calling, insults, threats, or walking out is detrimental to their psychological, social and emotional development.
When parents become flooded by their own emotions during conflict, it can be hard at times to take a step back and break patterns of dysfunctional conflict habits. However, as parents, we have a responsibility to learn how to manage conflict, and more importantly, our own emotions. Below are a just a few, research backed reasons to stop fighting in front of your children today.
Fighting Hurts Children- For a child, safety and security are at the hub of their development and all other parts of development rely heavily on these basics of childhood. Due to biological factors, we are programmed to attach to caregivers. This means that children love their parents as if their life depends on it. Witnessing or hearing parents fight hurts children psychologically by rocking the core of their safety and security. When children don’t feel safe and secure, they are not free to learn, play, or grow in the healthiest way. We may see behaviors at school, home, or other social settings as children exposed to fighting struggle to concentrate, may appear impulsive or quick to anger and have a hard time appropriately reading social cues.
Furthermore, due to sensory mirror neurons, children who witness yelling, name calling, threats of abandonment, or physical violence by one or more caregivers, can “feel” those things as if they are happening to them. This is often an early childhood trauma and can increase symptoms of depression and anxiety in children. It is not uncommon for stress, anxiety and worry to manifest as bodily complaints in children. They may experience headaches, stomach aches or sleep issues as a result of being exposed to family conflict. Fighting also affects their mental health as they worry about divorce, abandonment, or one (or both) parents’ feelings or ability to cope.
A Child’s Cognitive Ability Can Suffer- A 2013 study in Child Development found that the stress experienced in living in a household with intraparental conflict may impair a child’s cognitive performance. Researchers found that children exposed to high conflict had a decreased ability to manage attention and regulate emotions which are imperative for academic success. Their ability to quickly solve problems and effectively see patterns in new information was also affected.
Role Modeling is Important- How do children learn how to be adults? From watching their parents or other influential grown-ups in their lives. “Do as I say, not as I do” has never worked for anyone. Children are experiential and concrete and they are constantly looking to their environment for cues on how they should react. If you and your spouse or co-parent are regularly fighting in front of your children, those children are likely to have their own aggressive tendencies. Fighting in front of children may not seem like it’s too harmful, but unfortunately, psychological trauma has lasting effects, even if those are undiscovered in childhood. Children who are exposed to verbal or physical violence regularly are likely to grow into adults who also struggle with respecting others, fighting fair, and controlling expressions of anger. This can lead to issues within their own relationships or friendships, as well as their professional lives.
Trust is Easily Broken- Allowing children to hear and see you fight causes them to question who to trust. If you are saying hurtful things to someone you have said you love, this can be confusing to children and lead to a belief that either 1.) Those who love you are allowed to be disrespectful to you and treat you poorly or 2.) No one can be trusted to be kind to me. When children do not trust their caregivers, we see an increase in oppositional behaviors. Children may argue more with caregivers or teachers as they adopt the belief that they must care for themselves because no one else will. Children may also become defensive and hostile as they struggle with the learned helplessness that can come with growing up in an aggressive environment. It can be disorienting and confusing as children rely so heavily on important adults, specifically parents, to nurture and care for their emotional, social and physical wellbeing.
Fighting May Affect the Parent-Child Relationship- Being exposed to conflict creates a stressful environment for parents and children alike. When we are stressed as parents, we are not able to attend to the emotional and psychological needs of our children as well as if we were not in those stressful situations. Parents may become consumed with the conflict and not have as much in their own emotional reserves to be able to appropriately bond and attach with their children. From the child’s point-of-view, if trust has been broken it can affect the amount and quality of time they spend with parents as well. As a protective coping skill, children may engage in behaviors that further push their parents away as they struggle with trust and managing their own hurt and angry feelings.
The Loss of Innocence- This one is admittedly anecdotal, however, as a child therapist I have seen first hand the affects on children when they are exposed to situations and themes which are beyond their developmental level. When children are exposed to parental conflict, and verbal or physical violence, they are forced to begin dealing with adult themes and adult problems before they are developmentally ready. As parents or adult caregivers, we have a duty to try to preserve our children’s innocence as long as possible. Children are exposed to developmentally inappropriate content at an alarmingly high rate through media or social interactions over which we have little to no control. We can, however, limit their exposure to violence at home so that they can master each developmental stage before moving on to the next. I have witnessed this “loss of innocence”
If you are in a high-conflict relationship, and you have children, contact our office for more information on how we may be able to work together to help your family. Below are links to some of the studies on the topic.