All parents and families disagree sometimes. Conflict can be an important way to work out problems or create solutions. Fighting can be a family’s way of teasing or picking at one another. When the conflict is respectful, not physical, violent or hostile, children are usually not harmed. While parental, fighting is stressful for children. if it is not frequent or hostile, the family environment is warm, loving, secure and there is a supportive relationship with at least one parent, most children are usually OK.
Hostile fighting however is potentially harmful for children. It may include such actions as belligerence, contempt, ridicule, screaming, sarcasm, insulting, slapping, threatening, hitting or chasing. Another type of hostile conflict is triangulation or when children are placed in the middle of the fight. This involves trying to get the child to side with one parent, using the child to get information about the other parent or asking the child to be a message carrier when one parent doesn’t want to talk to the other. This style may also include ridiculing the other parent in front of the child.
Even when parents in subtle or indirect ways are resentful, upset, or show other unspoken tensions between one another, children notice and experience stress. Even the threat to leave the family or the marriage has been shown to have the same emotional repercussions on a child as witnessing physical violence on another parent. This threatens the very foundation of their emotional security.
So do kids really notice? Even young children sense the emotional climate and state of relationships in the home. Studies have shown that children from infancy through adolescence react to anger between parents and adults negatively. They know the difference between anger and other emotions.
So, won’t kids just get use to it? Studies show that with increased exposure children actually become more reactive to hostile fighting. Children react to hostile conflict by feeling depressed, sad, anxious, afraid, or may become aggressive towards other children or adults. Children may try to get involved in the fight, stop it, confront a parent or distract a parent so the fighting will stop…all which are physically and emotionally dangerous for the child.
Children may become especially upset and feel guilty if they think the fight is about them or they feel they caused the fight. When children grow up in homes with high conflict, they statistically exhibit poorer academic performance, are less able to get along with other children, exhibit problem behaviors like delinquency and vandalism or have other poor social skills. As teens they may also leave home at a younger age.
Stopping hostile fighting in the home, taking serious conflict out of the sight and ears of children is important for your child’s health. Reassure your child they are loved and not to blame for the conflict when it occurs. Explain to your child when an argument is resolved and let them see warm emotional exchanges between parents.
For more information on how to deal with conflict in the family in a healthy way, contact the Harnett County Cooperative Extension Office. 910-893-7535.