By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
Many of my adult clients come in with guilt and questions about having fought with their spouse in front of their children. The truth is, irritability and disagreements are a part of life, including family life. With that in mind, it’s worth considering how you and your partner handle conflict in terms of your children’s development and well-being.
We all have the mammalian flight or fight reaction built in. We are primed to respond to perceived threat with a stress response — elevated heart rate, muscle tension, a rush of adrenaline, and anxiety. These are physiological reactions outside of our conscious awareness that can occur in an instant if we’re startled or can build up more slowly in a stressful situation. This reaction can be a driver in arguments whenever we find ourselves “over-reacting.” It is also a factor in your children’s response to parental fights.
Even if you have a baby who can’t yet talk or understand your words, he or she will respond with distress to angry, fast voices and loud noises. Older children might seem to not be paying any attention and parents might think that if they’re in a different room or seem to be immersed in a screen, they are not noticing. They are. Children are often much more aware of their emotional environment than adults give them credit for. We don’t realize how much they pick up, in part because they don’t always have the language for it. Sometimes children are too afraid to indicate that they have heard a disagreement.
So does this mean that you need to hash out all your conflicts when your children are not present, and show unfailing good humor and agreement when they’re around? It doesn’t— not only would that be nearly impossible, but you would be shielding your children from experiences that are a normal part of life, and preventing them from gaining the confidence and tools for dealing with them.
Adults who come from either a very high conflict background, or one where negative emotions and conflict were suppressed and taboo, can lack tools for dealing with disagreements in their daily work and personal lives. They may be timid and unassertive, or harsh and aggressive. They may not have learned methods to moderate and modulate disagreements and their own behavior in a productive way.
So what can parents do? First, forgive yourself if you have a shouting match in front of your children. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen, but later process it with your children at an age appropriate level. Use simple language for younger children, and analogies they can understand, such as, “Remember when you were mad at Lucy when she took your toy? You made up afterwards and you’re still friends. Mommy and I can have a fight and still love each other.”
Talk with them about what it’s like for you to lose your temper, ask them about times when they’ve done so, and what led to it or helped them stay calm. Ask them how the fight with your spouse made them feel. Preferably, both parents can explain to their children that the issue was resolved, or at least assure them that you are continuing to work on it, and apologize if the fight was scary or unpleasant.
Keep working on handling conflict more productively, so that you’re modeling skills such as listening to the other person’s point of view, not using demeaning or harsh language, and taking a time out if you’re feeling too heated.
Allow your children to see you and your mate apologizing to each other. This way, they can learn that conflict can lead to the resolution of a problem and ultimately be a positive. Finally, if despite your best efforts, your relationship disagreements keep escalating into fights, individual or couples counseling can be helpful in identifying stress points and finding more productive ways to communicate.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her regular blog posts about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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