When parents are happy and content, children naturally feel happier and more content. It signals that overall, life is good. When parents meet each other's needs of feeling heard and supported and when they can work together to solve problems, children are freed from worrying about those adult problems. The opposite is also true in that when children see their parents being unhappy and anxious and not gaining the support they need from other adults, the child tends to carry at least some of that burden. Because children are naturally egocentric and don't understand the complexities of the issues, they tend to feel responsible or guilty, or fear that they will be blamed.
All couples have disagreements. When those differences can be worked through respectfully and reach satisfying solutions and agreements, children tend to be less affected and can learn healthy conflict resolution skills. Yet when children are exposed to relationship conflict that is intense, frequent, without resolution or abusive it impacts them negatively in many ways.
Living with intense conflict can;
- result in parents being unhappy and less available emotionally hence compromising their connection with their child,
- lead to parents being less tolerant of kids being kids and some of the overflow of anger being taken out on the child,
- result in many unhealthy behaviours in children stemming from increased stress and insecurity,
- lead to sibling conflicts because children reenact that which is modeled to them, plus the factor of the child channeling their upset feelings into conflicts with their sibling
- impact the child’s self-esteem and resilience, as both are determined by the security they feel in their relationship with their parent.
Parental conflict is harmful to children when it’s intense and frequent. When children witness or overhear arguments that become heated and hostile including verbal insults and shouting, this can cause children to be insecure. Children become anxious when exposed to parents being verbally or physically aggressive including throwing and breaking things; when parents withdraw and become non-responsive instead of negotiating a boundary or give each other the silent treatment; when children live with the fear of their parents separating or one of them leaving. Conflicts relating to the child or parenting style can be particularly stressful for children as they naturally tend to blame themselves and feel responsible for their parent’s happiness.
Communication that’s toxic for children to be exposed to can include shaming, sarcasm, mocking, withholding, yelling, contempt, name-calling, labeling, lying, being unwilling to admit wrongdoings, or show remorse and stonewalling. Verbal aggression, whether directed at the child or from one parent to the other can be highly distressing and cause a lot of insecurity in children. When it’s frequent and unresolved and not repaired the child is left in a nearly constant state of insecurity not knowing if or when it will happen again.
Ending Parental Conflict Resrouce Kit includes videos, audios and text to support parents to learn the healthy communication skills that result in increased connection and cooperation. A video responding to the question of how to intervene when you're unhappy or concerned about the interactions between your child and their other parent. One of the audios explains the differences between healthy and unhealthy conflict and shares lots of tips to help couples avoid toxic communication and reach agreeable solutions and resolution.
If one or more of these forms of toxic communication happens frequently, the child may be suffering from the traumatic impacts of emotional/ psychological abuse. The child not only suffers the anxiety, insecurity, confusion and often associated shame, but they are also hugely at risk of believing that these are ok, normal and justified ways of relating. If it’s a rare occurrence and can be repaired effectively and the child is left feeling secure that their parent sees and cares deeply about the impact on the child, clarity of mind and emotional security can be restored.
Physical violence towards a child or that the child witnesses from one parent towards the other, tends to cause intolerable levels of anxiety, insecurity, distrust, and resentment that can be impossible for a child to recover from without a lot of very skillful repair. Adults are taller, stronger, and hold huge amounts of power over children and each factor of power over another increases the intensity and extent of the potentially traumatic impact for individuals in general. Children are the most vulnerable for so many reasons. Professional help is often needed to help family members regain trust and emotional security. These, of course, are the same reasons why hitting (whether it’s called smacking, slapping or spanking) a child is never ok.
The traumatic impact of violence can lead to a child being desensitized or oversensitized to any form of aggression. Children who don't gain the help they need to express and gain relief from the upsetting feelings they carry may develop defense mechanisms that help them compartmentalize all that upset and confusion. This can lead to many psychological problems down the track. When parents fail to be sensitive to the negative impacts on a child, they cause the child to repress those feelings, which can lead to them being either oversensitized or desensitized to violence. The child who is oversensitized has a dramatically lower tolerance or ability to cope with any kind of aggression or mistreatment that they hear about, even in a book or a film. This child may become distressed when they witness other children or animals play fighting for instance. The child who is desensitized has an unhealthy high tolerance for any form of aggression. The person who is oversensitized may become triggered and distressed when they are exposed to anything that triggers their unresolved inner distress. For instance, the teacher is reading a story and there's a mention of mistreatment and the child has an intense reaction. Or the child becomes so desensitized that they can have an unhealthy tolerance for violence, either tolerating being mistreated or mistreating others with no show of remorse.
Breaking the cycles takes work but is so worth it! Sadly, many parents grew up in emotionally dysfunctional families where the most painful emotions tended to be either repressed or expressed destructively and aggressively. Parents, often unknowingly, re-experience this wounding from childhood when there’s disharmony in the family. As adults parenting our children, we have a huge responsibility to learn to communicate more compassionately and sensitively. The gift of parenting comes with the responsibility to our children and our children’s children to break the cycles of non-compassionate communication. Marshall Rosenberg, author of Non-Violent Communication refers to such unhealthy communication as tragic expressions of unmet needs. Luckily there’s a wealth of resources available to couples who want to bring more empathic communication into their primary relationships.
Supportive resources. If you’re a member of my Peaceful Parent Village Membership, tune in to my Ending Parental Conflict resource kit, it’s got a webinar recording tackling how to best respond when you don’t agree with how your partner is treating your child, an audio on when parents have different parenting styles, two audios on getting listening needs met, an audio on parenting when overwhelmed, an audio covering how to prevent yelling and exploding, and teaching the necessary communication skills. I also recommend our Overcoming Overwhelm eCourse. Because parental conflict is such a big source of stress for many parents, I’ve created and gathered a lot of resources for those committed to working with their partner (or ex-partner) to develop better communication and connection, to be more effective at finding solutions to the problems you’re facing. All family members deserve to feel safe, secure, seen, heard, understood and supported.