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Published August 27, 2010, 12:00 AM

When parents fight, their children suffer

When parents argue in front of children, it is one of the most stressful events of childhood. It isn’t the big blowout-type family argument or crisis that causes the harm. It is the daily hassles with marital conflict and family arguments that best predict whether a child will be affected.

By: By Val Farmer, INFORUM

When parents argue in front of children, it is one of the most stressful events of childhood. It isn’t the big blowout-type family argument or crisis that causes the harm. It is the daily hassles with marital conflict and family arguments that best predict whether a child will be affected. Frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict is related to higher levels of children’s problems.

Here are some findings researchers have found on the effects of marital conflict and hostility on symptoms of adolescent distress and the quality of their relationships with early teens.

1. Negative emotions spill over to relationships with children. Anger in one relationship will be a stimulus for anger and irritability in other close relationships. When parents argue with each other, they are more likely to become angry, irritating or controlling toward their children.

By paying close attention to their parents’ conflict, a son or daughter becomes more sensitive to their parents poor communication techniques toward him or her during disagreements. Teens’ perception of parental unfairness in discipline or logic compounds their anger and frustration when they feel frustrated in not getting their way or feel otherwise mistreated.

2. Marital fights often lead to distraction and depression in the parents. They become less effective in dealing with their children. Parents become absorbed in their marital problems and are unable to concentrate as much on their parenting practices. They have less energy, focus and patience with their children and their issues.

3. Teens feel less secure and more anxious when they are aware that their parents aren’t getting along. They fear that one parent will leave the family to avoid the repetitive arguments. They also think friction with their parents is more personally threatening when they see their parents constantly fighting.

High family conflict produces low self-esteem, worries about an uncertain future and poorer coping with stress. Chronic strife increases frustration, anxiety and depression. They may avoid being home, spend more time with their friends or even try using alcohol or drugs to keep from thinking about their quarreling parents. School performance also suffers.

4. Children from high conflict homes have a harder time learning to control their emotions. They are more prone to anger and violence. They may use a high conflict style to resolve problems with their peers, siblings or later in life when they become parents themselves.

If they feel helpless about their parents’ conflict, they may learn to ignore or not examine the conflict. They distance themselves from it and emotionally shut down.

5. Loyalties become confused. Children can feel caught in the middle. They might side with one parent and reduce their emotional investment in the other parent. Family dynamics become really confused when parents seek allies among their children in the marital disputes.

The worst and most destructive argument parents can have in front of their kids is when they fight about each other’s parenting skills. By arguing or undermining each other’s authority in front of the children, parents set the stage for manipulation and divided loyalties within the family. Short of verbal or physical abuse, parents should support each other’s discipline in front of the children and negotiate their differences in private.

Some conflict is constructive, normal and OK. It is not the presence of marital disagreements that is the cause of the difficulty. It is the intensity and the frequency of the marital arguments.

Parents are role models for how to resolve problems. Children can learn to manage conflict within their own lives. However problems develop when conflict involves high levels of anger. How much anger can be tolerated is the question. Apparently not much. Children learn problem solving best in low-conflict homes.

In homes with little strife, children are optimistic about getting along. They are more flexible, adaptive, and more open-minded and constructive in their approaches to problem solving. They are more open in their communications.

The issue is not about whether marital arguments cause harm to parenting practices. The issue becomes what kinds of conflict cause harm, whether the conflict is about the children, whether it takes place in front of the children, and what thresholds of intensity and frequency of arguments shift conflict from being a positive experience to a negative one.

For the sake of the children. Does all of this suggest that fighting parents should divorce for the sake of the children? No. The evidence is that divorce itself – independent of parental conflict, style of parenting or even earlier problems by children – has a negative impact in children’s lives.

A remarriage can also have a negative impact. The number of major changes a child experiences has a cumulative effect on his or her psychological distress.

Better than divorce, the challenge is for parents to learn to communicate better, reduce conflict between themselves and learn to solve problems in an atmosphere of courtesy and respect. They will be happier and so will their children.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist.

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