I consider us a happy family unit. But sometimes we argue. Does this have a negative effect upon the children?
All parents have arguments. And arguments come in different shapes and sized- e.g. some are frequent low-level arguments, some the occasional major confrontation, some are loud and antagonistic, some are silent and brooding. This newsletter looks at the features of arguing that upsets children and what has a lasting effect.
Conflicts and disagreements form a part of close family relationship. It is a natural part of the intimacy. The goal is not to eradicate disagreements but to ensure they do not threaten the child’s security that the relationship is ongoing.
- Parents who argue occasionally, and only increase this during a particularly stressful time, and who communicate with their children about the resolution seem to have the least affect upon their children. You would expect this wouldn’t you?
- Frequent disagreements that involve hostility and where there is no resolution seem to have the most effect on children. You would expect this wouldn’t you?
Research tells us that, from a child’s point of view, the key factor that limits the amount of negative impact is that there is resolution. And a resolution that they know about and can see in action.
Parents who ‘stop talking’ to each other and retire to different parts of the house- or leave the house altogether- have a strong effect upon children as they experience the tension and underground hostility without any apparent resolution.
Non-resolution prompts questions in the child’s mind- lots of questions about their parent’s happiness and the future of the relationship but mostly questions about their fault. ‘What did I do’?’ ‘How did I make them so unhappy?’ ‘How can I put it right?’ This is followed by thoughts such as ‘It’s because of me they hate each other’, ‘other parents love their children more’, ‘if it wasn’t for me they wouldn’t argue’ and the ever-present ‘it’s all my fault’.
What happens next? If what happens next is compromise and reconciliation and resolution, then, although the child has felt scared- especially of they are young – a constructive and communicated outcome can bring an increased sense of family connectedness. A ‘communicated outcome’ to a child can be can be to see physical connection, smiles and loving looks between adults, some family time all together where people are relaxed, talking through the scenario with statements about ‘what we have decided to do’, changes in routines or behaviours etc. – all of which can be explained to the child followed by ‘we are sorry if this made you sad’, ‘we want you know that we still love each other’ and, most importantly, ‘it wasn’t your fault’.
Children of different ages experience things differently. This extreme case study will make this clear. In a family where there were 3 children experiencing hostility the 14 years old retrospectively recalled the arguments and shouting. The 11 year old recalled the anxiety and tension he felt at meal times- a time when the arguments would start and the youngest, aged 7, recalled the slamming of the door as Mummy left after he had been put to bed. Whilst all children were deeply affected by their childhood, the youngest was the most profoundly damaged. This child had more questions, more not knowing.
Children process arguments differently. Some experience them more intensely and feel more threatened than others. Their interpretation affects their sense of risk and fear. Boys seem to report more self-blame than girls. It could be that they think their behaviour sparks a lot of the conflict between parents whereas girls seem to feel more threatened. Where there is aggression– not talked about here- the emotional risk to the child becomes a major issue. In general, where there are ‘normal’ arguments within families, there are no clear statements here- it depends on the child, on you, on what the family is like most of the time, however what to do to help is very clear:
- Positive outcomes come from constructive disagreements and resolutions- arguments should not bring victory but progress.
- Avoid your child being involved in the argument but do communicate your resolution.
- Tell them it was nothing to do with them and it certainly wasn’t their fault.
- Children usually know when there are arguments even if you think they don’t!
- Some arguing is better than no arguing in helping your child to grow and learn.
- Use the opportunity to teach good communication and problem- solving skills.