You know that a close bond with your child is necessary for him to feel cared for, but it's equally as important for him to believe the relationship between his parents is solid and strong. When parents fight in front of their kid and their relationship appears fragile, it can have detrimental effects on his sense of security and lead to developmental problems.
Anxiety and Fear
When children observe their parents fighting and out of control, they feel more vulnerable and on shaky ground. They wonder about their parents' abilities to protect and care for them, because their dysfunctional behavior shows they're unable to take care of themselves. As a result, the world appears threatening and less safe to your child. He might become anxious, depression, develop low self-esteem or grow into a fearful adult. While fighting, you shift your attention away from your child, which could deprive him of much needed parenting during crucial times. Your child might be reluctant to approach you or your spouse, even during those moments when he needs you the most.
Guilt and Shame
Many children don't understand the reasons behind their parents' squabbling and often believe the fights are their fault. For instance, if your child failed to clean his room, finish his dinner or misbehaved, and later in the evening you fight with your spouse, he might blame himself. Believing he's responsible for his parents' battles is quite a burden for any child to carry, and often leads to guilt, shame and self-hatred. It could also take a toll on his self-respect, confidence and ability to stand up for himself in the future, because in his mind, he's always the guilty one.
Children model their behavior by observing their parents, including how they deal with and ultimately resolve conflicts. Your child may have learned to handle conflict by throwing tantrums, fighting, hitting and arguing, because that's how Mommy and Daddy act when they disagree. Or, he might become so distressed by witnessing the fighting, he concludes that emotions are dangerous, leading to explosive situations and being hurt by loved ones. As a result, he begins repressing his feelings and becomes withdrawn, emotionally inhibited, and reluctant to socially interact with others.
Parents who fight send their children a message that intimacy can bring pain and turmoil. Although they also see their parents being loving with each other, their explosive fights often leaves them upset, with Mommy in tears. As a result, your child might develop trust issues and avoid developing intimate relationships to protect himself from being hurt. He'll steer clear of close relationships because he believes they inevitably lead to constant fighting. Or, he'll form relationships, but develop a pattern of ending them just as intimacy develops.
The Importance of Skillful Communication
It's not the disagreements between parents that's harmful, it's how those conflicts are handled and resolved in front of their child, according to E. Mark Cummings of the University of Notre Dame. Parents who manage to control their heated emotions and work out differences through calm conversations rather than fights set healthy examples for their children.If you and your spouse are unable to keep your emotions in check and disagreements repeatedly escalate into fights in front of your child, consult with a licensed psychologist, family counselor or psychiatrist who works with couples to learn healthier ways to communicate with each other.
- U.S. News & World Report: Parents' Fighting May Have Long-Lasting Effect on Kids
- ABC News: GMA: Fighting in Front of Children, Emotionally Damaging
- The New York Times: Chronic Arguing Between Parents Found Harmful to Some Children
- Dr. Phil: Fighting in Front of Your Kids
- FoxNews.com: Fighting Parents Impair Kid's Emotional Development
- This Emotional Life: Protecting Children from the Impact of Marital Strife
- Oregon Health & Science University: Lasting Effects of Parents' Squabbles
- David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images