Even in the most successful and happiest of marriages couples fight. In fact, most experts agree that a few occasional disagreements usually aren’t a big deal, and in fact can often lead to a clearing of the air, and lead to improvements in the relationship.
However, couples fighting continuously, and especially how they fight, can have a serious impact on the emotional well-being of their children.
In most cases, a typical parental argument will have little or no negative effects on children. But when parents shout and are angry with each other, when they consistently withdraw or give each other the “silent treatment”, problems can and often do arise.
Studies have shown that from as young as six months, children who are exposed to consistent conflict have increased heart rates and stress hormone responses. Infants, children, and adolescents can show signs of disrupted early brain development, sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, and other serious emotional and behavioral problems as a result of living with severe or chronic inter-parental conflict.
Researchers believe high-conflict marriages take a toll on a child’s mental health for several reasons:
- Kids are emotionally insecure – Fighting undermines kids’ sense of security about the stability of the family. Children exposed to a lot of fighting may worry about divorce or wonder when one parent’s silent treatment is going to end. It can make it difficult for them to have a sense of normalcy in the family since fights may be unpredictable.
- The parent-child relationship may be affected – High-conflict situations are stressful for parents too. And a stressed-out parent might not spend a lot of time with kids. In addition, the quality of the relationship may be affected as it may be difficult for parents to show warmth and affection when they’re angry and upset with the other parent.
- Fighting creates a stressful environment – Overhearing frequent or intense fighting is stressful for kids. Stress can take a toll on their physical and psychological well-being and interfere with normal, healthy development.
When Does Fighting Become Problematic?
No matter the age of your children or whether you’re seeing effects of marital strife, take a close look at how you argue. Just because your fights don’t get physical doesn’t mean they aren’t harmful to your kids. Destructive disagreement tactics that could have a negative impact on children include:
- Threats of abandonment (such as threatening to leave the house or divorce)
- Any form of physical aggression (including throwing things or punching things in anger)
- Walking out or withdrawing from the argument
- Capitulation (giving into the other parent when there’s not really a solution)
Remember, that a spat or two doesn’t mean you’ve irreparably harmed your child. However, you might want to take a few steps to lessen the effects of what they saw and heard.
Indeed, studies have shown that children respond well when parents explain or resolve – in an appropriate way – what an argument was about. When parents successfully resolve arguments, children can learn important positive lessons that can help them navigate their own emotions and relationships beyond the family circle.
Helping parents understand how their relationships affect children’s development sets the stage for healthy children today – and healthy families in the future.