Dr Richard C. Woolfson
Conflict arises in every relationship. It enables disagreements to be raised and resolved, views to be exchanged, and sensitive matters to be sorted out. There is a hardly a mum and dad who don’t have minor arguments, especially when their children are young.
Yet no child likes to see his parents fight with each other. If your kids regularly catches the two of you in the middle of a blazing row, she’ll be very upset by it.
You know that this particular marital squabble is not the end of the world and that disagreements are part of family life, but she doesn’t know this. She sees things very simply – the two people she loves most in the world are at battle stations with each other.
Related: Keeping your temper in control
WHAT'S HAPPENING HERE?
Parental arguments in front of children have a negative influence for two reasons.
First, there are indirect effects. If you spend too much time locked in disputes with your partner, you’ll have less time and emotional strength to give to your child. And you’ll be less sensitive to her needs as you will be too wrapped up in your own worries.
What’s more, these fights create a tense and strained atmosphere, which affects everyone else at home too. And then there is the horrible sight of mum and dad displaying aggression towards each other. These indirect effects can be very strong.
Second, there are direct effects. Most significantly, a child’s sense of security diminishes. She fears for her own safety as she’s thinking, “If mum and dad can be horrible to each other then maybe they will be horrible to me”. She also fears for the two of you, in case you hurt each other during a fight or maybe break up altogether.
MAKE IT BETTER
If your child does catch you both in the middle of an argument, reassure her that the fight doesn’t really mean anything. Tell her clearly that although you are both angry, you still care for each other. Make sure she understands this and that she is not afraid of the conflict she has observed.
Suggest that she thinks of her own relationships and ask her to recall an instance when she disagreed with a friend and yet still remained good pals with her. Use this to illustrate that it is perfectly possible to love someone and to be annoyed with him at the same time.
Reassure your child that you fight with each other occasionally because of normal disagreements. Tell her there is nothing to worry about. Let her see that you are able to make up once the dispute is over.
You can also explain that disagreements (though not physical fighting) help you and your partner sort things out. Of course, it would be better if neither of you lost your temper, but getting angry is only temporary.
Once your child realises that fights between mum and dad – however unpleasant they are to watch – don’t mean your relationship is at an end, she’ll be less distressed about them in the future.
Naturally, it would be much better if all family conflict were sorted out amicably. But you are only human, and your growing child will cope better after you have explained these points to her. This may also help her deal with conflict in her own relationships, making her a stronger person.
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