No matter how healthy your relationship is, all couples will have arguments at some point. As adults, we know that the occasional row isn’t a big deal, but for children, seeing their parents argue can be distressing and upsetting.
Children as young as 6 months old can be affected by your arguments, but it’s not just young children. Right up to the age of 19, children can be sensitive to perceived problems in their parent’s marriage.
Children are emotionally insecure. Fighting in the home can undermine the sense of security and stability in the family. If children are exposed to a lot of arguments, they might begin to worry about divorce. Unpredictable fights can make it hard for a child to have a sense of normalcy at home.
Their relationship with you can be affected. If you’re in conflict with your spouse, you’re likely to be stressed. A stressed-out parent might not spend as much time with their child. The quality of the relationship may also take a hit if your stress and anger makes it hard to express warmth and affection.
Overhearing intense fighting is stressful for children too. Stress can have an impact on their psychological and physical well-being, interfering with their normal development.
A 2012 study was published in the journal of Child Development, which explored the effect of parental conflict on children. During this study, parents with children in kindergarten were asked about the amount of conflict they thought they experienced in their marriage. They were also asked about topics like finances to see how critical they were of each other. Seven years later, the researchers went back and both the children and the parents were asked about the conflict in the marriage. Those who had parents who fought more often or in a mean way were more likely to experience behavioral issues in addition to depression and anxiety. Some think that the ladder are issues only experienced as adults, or teenagers, but this isn't the case.
Living in a high-conflict environment can have an effect on a child’s cognitive performance. Children with parents who fight a lot are more likely to struggle with regulating their attention and emotions. They will be less able to solve problems or see patterns when learning new information.
Chiildren who see their parents show hostility towards each other will be more likely to treat others with hostility. They are likely to begin trying to solve their own squabbles, whether with siblings or on the playground, with the same tactics they’ve seen you use, whether that’s angry insults or the cold silent treatment. Later in life, this makes it harder for them to maintain healthy relationships.
The conflict between parents has also been linked to increased aggression, delinquency and conduct problems. They may experience social problems, an increased likelihood of experiencing an eating disorder or substance abuse. The stress can cause headaches, stomachaches and sleep problems. It’s more likely that their academic life will suffer, with higher odds of dropping out of school.
Children of all ages are affected by seeing their parents fight. Destructive argument tactics are especially damaging. No matter how angry you are, try to avoid exposing your children to seeing you resort to:
Your children see how you handle your arguments and they learn their problem-solving and conflict resolution skills from you. Remember that your marriage is also the first model that children have for what a loving relationship looks like. If you treat each other in a negative way, it’s likely that your children will mirror this in their own relationships as an adult.
All couples argue, and all couples experience the occasional argument that gets out of hand and descends to those toxic responses like the silent treatment and name-calling. If your children have witnessed an argument, don’t panic. You haven’t damaged them in an irreversible way. If you’ve had a bad argument that your children have overheard, you can remedy the situation.
Discuss the fight. Don’t discuss what the fight was about with your children, but do sit down with your children to explain that you have had an argument that went too far because you disagreed about something you both cared about very much. Make sure you point out that it was wrong to let things escalate in this way.
Reassure them that it was only an argument and not an indication of bigger problems. Reassure them (assuming it is true) that you still love each other and are not getting divorced.
Explain that sometimes arguments happen and that people might lose their tempers. Remind them that despite the row, you all love each other and are still a strong family unit.
Many parents in difficult marriages worry about whether it is better to get divorced or to try and stay together for the sake of their children.
Children tend to do better in two-parent families, but it is very important that parents get along and model good argument behaviour. Divorce can have an impact on children, but which has a bigger psychological toll?
Children from single-parent households may experience other problems, such as economic problems or feeling seperated from one parent or the other. This can mean they don’t feel as secure as children from households with two parents. Blended families can also be a struggle for children - but all of these areas are issues that REID Counseling, and other practices like it, specialize in minimizing.
However, living in a home with high conflict can be more stressful than life after parents who get divorced. In either case, parents who can get along before or after a divorce are more likely to have children who don’t struggle from as much as emotional damage as children exposed to regular, nasty fighting.
If your relationship is high conflict and irrepairable, getting divorced may be much better for your children than you trying to stay together for their sake. Seek help to reduce the conflict in your marriage and make decisions from there to help your children grow up happy and healthy.
There are some tools you can use to have arguments that are far less stressful and accepting for both you and your children. Use these tools to reach a resolution without causing hurt.
When having a disagreement, stick to the facts. Express how you feel and what you need, and try to do so in a civil, respectful way. Keep arguments on one topic. Avoid escalating a row by making accusations or bringing up past disagreements.
Let go of the need to win. If one partner ‘wins’, in reality, both partners have lost. Compromise is an essential skill in conflict resolution. Compromise rarely feels perfect, but both partners will win in the end.
Many relationship issues are unsolvable, so it is very important to create a dialogue based on your understanding of your partner to help you find a solution. Explore the issue in a healthy way together and try to get the heart of the problem. You can forge a deeper connection in this way and find creative solutions to the arguments you find yourself returning too.
Make a rule about pausing an argument. It’s common for one partner to enter a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode as their stress hormones activate. When this happens, problem-solving is very unlikely to happen, turning the fight to a pointless exercise. If this happens, take a timeout. Take a break from the disagreement. Take ten minutes to step away and calm down and then return when you’re better able to problem solve and discuss things sensibly.
Make requests instead of complaints. Many arguments begin in accusations of things your partner always or never does. Instead of this, make a request. Ask them to help you clean up around the house, or stop leaving their shoes in the front hall. Express how you feel, and make a clear request that your partner can fulfil to help you feel better. For example, express that you are stressed because the house is a mess and ask politely for them to help out more.
If your partner is the one expressing their concerns, you need to listen to what they’re saying without interrupting. If you don’t understand what they’re asking you for, ask for clarification. This shows you are willing to listen and take on board what they are telling you and taking their feelings seriously.
After an argument, remember to apologize. Recognise that you may have hurt your partner and apologize for it. Remember too that in much the same way people have different ways of expressing and understanding love, people have different ways of understanding an apology. Understand how your partner likes to be apologized too and tailor your apology to them. Some people may prefer a big gesture, whereas others may prefer an unemotional, but clear, apology. For these apologies, you can express that you are sorry that you hurt their feelings and lay out the steps you will make to not do the same thing again.
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