How parental conflicts affect children?
I usually have this habit of including lots of fun games and activities during my workshop especially when the audience are children. During one of the similar workshops this summer, I asked my students to get divided into teams of two and play dumb-charades where one team must enact something and the other team should guess. The only difference here was unlike the usual practice of enacting a movie, here they were given relationships to enact & guess. As children were understanding the underlying bonds, affection and care in relationships, I was sitting back enjoying the way they were expressing till something very shocking and surprising happened. The youngest team in the group, a five-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy started their act with fights and arguments, by the time I could even think on what this relationship could possibly be, a team spoke out loudly, “Daddy-Mummy!!!!”. Though children’s laughter diluted the message and the game moved on. I could not stop myself from thinking that this act might seem comical if it were coming from an adult, but coming from five and seven-year-old children whose intentions are far from getting a laugh, the answer is much more unsettling and much more worthy of our consideration. Whether we like it or not, our children are watching us all the time. The saying that children are like sponges absorbing the world around them is especially true of the emotional atmosphere that surrounds them. When it comes to the relationship between their parents, no irritated eye-roll goes unseen, and no whispered criticism goes unheard. No matter how hard we may try to conceal problems, children are sensitive to the tensions between their parents and are directly influenced by the way their parents interact.
Many of us can remember occasions from our own childhoods when our parents were so involved in their emotional states that they acted as if we were invisible. Now as parents, there are times when we are so immersed in an interaction with our partner or spouse, that we forget that we have an audience in our children. We may try to fool ourselves that they are distracted playing on the floor, but little is likely to slip past them when it comes to dynamics between their parents. Whether it’s a parent who yells a lot or one who acts sullen and angry, these patterns directly impact our kids when they are young. From a very early age—as young as six months, some researchers say—children show distress when their parents fight. Their reactions can include fear, anger, anxiety, and sadness, and they are at higher risk of experiencing a variety of health problems, disturbed sleep, and difficulty in focusing and succeeding at school. They may "externalize" their distress in the form of "aggression, hostility, anti-social and non-compliant behavior, delinquency and vandalism," or "internalize" it in the form of "depression, anxiety, withdrawal and dysphoria."
In addition, "children from high-conflict homes are more likely to have poor interpersonal skills, problem solving abilities and social competence." Those problems negatively impact their romantic relationships in adolescence and adulthood, as conflicts cause children to "perceive themselves and their social worlds more negatively" and to "have more negative pictures or internal representations of family relationships." Thus the high-conflict relationship of one couple can produce other negative relationships in the next generation. It is common and normal for two parents to have different ideas, opinions, values and priorities. Part of being successful in a relationship with another person is being able to use appropriate communication skills so that ideas and opinions can be expressed and received with respect and differences of opinion can be worked out using healthy conflict resolution strategies. But if the parents don’t have a way to resolve the conflicts, the results can be chronic. This harmful conflict can range on a continuum of yelling, criticizing, blaming, put downs, mocking, sarcasm and ignoring at one end of spectrum to intimidation, threats to harm, actual physical violence, throwing, destroying, grabbing, shoving, slapping, hitting and so on. Now this situation can happen not only in troubled relationships but also in normal relationships, I am sure by now you can connect to your individual scenario and may be are looking out for suggestions to resolve conflicts but my dear parents before I give you suggestions on how to resolve the conflict, I would like to make you aware on how does your small or big conflict effect your child:
1.Negative impact on Child’s mental health
What is very destructive psychologically for children is for them to experience their parents’ continuing unresolved hostile conflicts. Research indicates that children are resilient and highly adaptive in general and can usually cope with and adapt to difficult situation like separation or divorce but what severely damages children is bitter, long lasting, ongoing conflict between parent. The longer parental conflict continues and the greater the tension between the parents, the greater the likelihood that psychological difficulties will result for children such as emotional and behavior problems, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, low self-esteem, school problems and several other difficulties.
2. Children Feel Unsafe
Chronic parental conflict creates a climate of tension, chaos, disruption and unpredictability in the family environment that is meant to be safe and secure and comfortable to grow up in. Children feel anxious, frightened, and helpless. They may worry about their own safety and their parents’ safety even if there has been no actual or threatened violence. Children’s imaginations are powerful and they may imagine harm coming to themselves or to one of their family members. If parents are still together there is also worry about divorce and the family being split up
3. Children Worry About Taking Sides
Children worry that they have to take sides in the conflict. They generally want to please both parents but this becomes impossible and creates stress for children. Children become caught in the middle. Or they may align with one parent against the other, which can be very destructive and unhealthy for all family members.
4. Children Feel Guilty
Children often believe they are responsible for the fighting that goes on between their parents. This is especially true if children hear arguments related to different parenting styles, school issues, or financial issues related to them. This guilt from feeling responsible for their parents’ conflict causes much emotional distress for children.
5. Poor Role-Modeling for Children
Children learn lessons about how to get along with others from how their parents get along with each other. If parents only model unhealthy ways to communicate and resolve problems, most likely that is how their children will communicate and solve problems with others when they grow up to be adults.
6. Quality of Parenting Decreases
Chronic parental conflict increases stress on parents, which can result in the decreased use of effective parenting skills over time, with a resulting negative impact on the children.
7. Parent-Child Relationships May Suffer
In the absence of severe problems, it is healthy for children and they need to be allowed to develop a relationship with both parents regardless of how the parents feel about each other.
If a child constantly hears bad things about one parent from another parent, the danger is that the parent-child relationship of the criticized parent may weaken. This can also work in the opposite direction, since a child can resent a parent who criticizes and refuses to respect the other parent, especially as the child grows older.
Providing children with an environment in which they feel physically and psychologically safe is critically important for their well-being and must be given high priority. Resolving parental conflict has been shown to positively help children and protect them from the negative effects. To know more about strategies to resolve conflicts please follow the upcoming article next week.
(The author is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Learning Arena, an e-learning company)