When children head back to school this year, they should not be carrying emotional baggage from home.
When we worry about how our children will handle school- what they will face and how they will cope, we often overlook the impact of marital strife on their physical, emotional and intellectual functioning.
It is difficult to feel confident, curious or open to new school friends or ideas when you are a young person weighed down by exposure to adult conflict and issues.
While we know that the impact of most traumatic events on children can be reduced if parents remain calm & learn to manager their own feelings, marital strife poses a bigger challenge. In the case of chronic marital strife, the very people who are supposed to offer safety are the ones creating the danger!
Don’t All Couples Fight?
Yes, in fact if a child never saw any discord or disagreement, he/she would have no model for conflict resolution or regulating a broad range of emotions.
Marital strife that creates a potential emotional crisis for a child of any age is a different animal altogether. It involves expressions of anger that can include chronic but subtle verbal abuse, the silent treatment, bitter fighting and at the extreme, domestic violence that warrants a 911 call.
Unregulated marital discord demands too much of children and teens.
- Some children run in to rescue the parents and reduce the tension by engaging either or both parents in something fun, interesting, or attention getting.
Do they need this extra job as they face new appropriate childhood challenges?
- Some children will draw the fire to themselves (consciously or unconsciously) by misbehaving or acting out in order to shift the emotional tone.
Is this a learned pattern of survival we want a youngster to take with them in life?
- Older children will learn to escape into their rooms, their phones, or their computers- sadly some may learn to escape into drugs and alcohol.
In their necessary avoidance they tragically lose not only the connection with their parents, but a world of knowledge, relationships and opportunities.
- Some children are enlisted as confidantes or adversaries in the aftermath of marital discord.
Such a role steals the privilege of being a child. No matter what the age, it puts the child in a no-win position because siding with one parent equates to guilt, confusion, and fear of abandonment by the other parent.
- In all cases, angry silence puts a burden on children that they should never have to bear.
Silence leaves too big a space for self- blame, as well as fears of harm, abandonment, and loss.
How Can We Make an Expression of Anger Safe for Children?
Self-regulation and monitoring of anger on the part of adults makes its expression compatible with a safe and loving environment.
- It is not about whether you fight it is about how you fight and how often.
- It is about making it safe to be angry and safe to make mistakes.
- It is about regulating anger so that it does not destroy love.
- It is about not adding drugs and alcohol, which most often fuel the fight.
- It is about the capacity to agree to disagree.
- It is about the courage to apologize, forgive and recover.
- It is about knowing that anything you say or do to the parent of a child, you say and do to that child.
Parental Strategies for Reducing the Impact of Marital Strife on Children:
Balance- Some people say context is everything. There is room for mistakes in a loving context. It is not only a benefit to the partners, but a benefit to children to see parents hug, show affection, laugh and talk positively as the balance to those times when parents may argue, disagree or criticize.
Make Meaning– Whether you ended up fighting in front of the kids at breakfast or started yelling at each other in the “ other room” (which unless you have cement walls is usually audible)– the most effective thing you can do for yourself, your partner and the children is “make meaning” of what just happened.
Make Meaning for Yourself:
Self reflect by remembering that many things erupt as anger. Recognizing that in yourself and sharing some of that with your partner is an important anger management skill. Consider asking yourself:
- “Am I really tired, hungry, anxious or in pain?”
- “Are there other feelings underneath this anger?
- “Am I blaming my partner for something out of his/her control?”
Make Meaning for the Kids:
Depending on the situation, partners differ in how quickly one or both can gain composure and take the children into account. The most important thing is that someone steps away from the fighting.
Consider an activity with the kids that will move you away from the anger and bring down your own hyper-arousal. Whether you invite the kids to bake, shoot hoops, walk the dog or play video games, you have changed the situation from anxiety and anger to safety and connection. While engaged, you may have an opportunity to make sense of what just happened:
- “You know Dad and I sometimes yell too much when we disagree over things – we will figure it out.”
- “ Parents can get pretty cranky at times when they are tired – but I shouldn’t be picking on everyone- I’m sorry.”
- “You know I realize I wasn’t being very nice to anyone when I stopped talking and just walked outside – I was really upset at work. I should have explained.”
Some kids will not verbally respond. They will keep baking or shooting hoops– but almost all kids will hear you.
Take Care of Yourself
It goes without saying that the healthier and happier you are individually and as a couple, the more love and stability you bring to your children, and the more they can bring to a full and exciting childhood. If you realize your need help in any aspect of your life – reach for it for them and for you.
- Children and teens don’t need you to stop being together, to give up your jobs or to give them undivided attention at all times; but they need you to know how to protect them.
- They can’t carry your anger or your marital stress into their childhood lives.
- Putting their safety and childhood ahead of your rage is a tremendous benefit to you and a lifetime gift to them.
Young girl going to school photo available from Shutterstock