Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Protecting Children From Marital Stress During the Pandemic

Disaster experts tell us that the impact of most traumatic events on children can be reduced if parents remain calm, deal with their own feelings and reassure the child that they will keep them safe and protected. Marital Strife is an emotional crisis for a child because the very people needed to offer safety are the ones creating the danger.

What is Marital Strife?

Marital Strife can span a range from ongoing contemptuous comments and bitter fighting to domestic violence that warrants a 911 call.There has been a reported increase in Domestic Violence during the Corona Pandemic.

Domestic Violence officially means any incident of threatening behavior, violence, or abuse between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members.

Whereas the extremes of domestic violence are dangerous and warrant intervention, any family situation where  parents are continuously contentious, with demeaning remarks and verbal conflicts  is a liability for children who are put in physical and psychological danger every time they witness any type of violence in their home.

Whereas parents cannot control the spread of the Corona Virus, they can help their children by reducing the impact of fighting in front of their children.

Don’t All Couples Fight?

Yes, in fact if a child never sees any discord or disagreement, they are living in an unrealistic environment with no role models to regulate a broad range of emotions. The answer is regulation of anger that makes its’ expression compatible with a safe and loving environment.

  • It is not about whether you fight it is 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 the capacity to agree to disagree for yourselves and for your children.
  • It is about repairing a rupture when things fall apart.
  • 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 – good or bad – you do to that child.

How Can You Control and Reduce the Impact of Marital Strife?

Balance- It is not only a benefit to you and your partner, but a benefit to children to see parents hug and show affection as well as to hear them compliment, laugh and talk positively about each other 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 can be heard– the most effective thing you can do for yourself, your partner and the children is to “make meaning” of what just happened.

Think of it like the oxygen masks that drop when a plane hits a rough spot – put on your mask, breathe and then put one on your child to allow him/her to breathe.

Making Meaning for Yourself:

  • “Am I really tired, frightened or feeling sick?”
  • “Is there another feeling that I just can’t face (grief, loneliness, financial fear) that I am covering with anger?”
  • “Am I blaming him/her for what this pandemic has done to everyone’s life?”
  • “This is a really terrifying situation – It’s no one’s fault –Taking it out on each other is hurting us and the kids.
  • Making Meaning for the Kids:
  • Find an activity with the kids to move you away from the anger and bring down your hyperarousal.
  • Particularly if they have heard the fighting, it gives you an opportunity “to make meaning” and to show that we “go on.”
  • Whether you invite the kids to bake, walk the dog or play video games, you have changed the situation from anxiety and anger to safety and connection.
  • In your own way help them make sense of what just happened:

“You know Dad and I sometimes disagree over things – but we always figure it out.”

“I’m sorry guys – “I just figured out that I am really tired that’s why I was yelling so much – let’s have a snack and start a new game.

Prevent Silence From  Getting Too Loud

The antidote to screaming in the bedroom is not becoming going silent or giving your partner the silent treatment in front of the children.  The silent treatment carries with it tension and anger and precludes “moving on.”  It is just another version of destructive anger. It puts children in a very anxious state.

  • 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.
  • Some children will draw the fire to themselves (consciously or unconsciously) by misbehaving or acting out – just to shift the emotional tone.
  • Older children will learn to escape into their rooms, their phones or their computers (instead of drugs or alcohol) if you are lucky!
  • In all cases, angry silence puts a burden on children that they should never have to bear.

Avoid Using Children For Your Needs

  • Using your child as your confident, adversary or sounding board in the aftermath of marital strife is no gift to your child – it actually adds insult to injury.
  • It ignores his/her privilege of being your child- no matter what the age.
  • It puts the child or teen in a no win position – as siding with one parent equates to guilt, confusion and feared loss of abandonment by the other parent.
  • It prevents what the children need most – your consideration of the problem with your partner or seeking professional help to do so.

Protect Their Childhood Memories

No matter how much stress you are feeling as a couple or how stressful things are going – please remember that regulating the ups and downs in your relationship is crucial to your own well-being and that of your children.

As Viktor Frankl shares in his powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaningwhen there is a WHY you can tolerate any HOW. Children are the WHY. They are the priority. They trust that the adults who love them will provide some predictability and joy in their lives.

It is often a surprise to parents that when they put aside their fight to carry on with the plan for their little ones or their teens– they are transformed by the shared pleasure of seeing their children’s delight. It is often a powerful point of re-connection.

Please Take Care of Yourself and Each Other-Your Children are Depending on You.


Related Information

Domestic Violence Hotline

Podcast Psych UP Live  “ The Kids Are All Right.”  Listen in to Dr. Rebecca Hershberg, answering common parent questions about coping and building resilience.