Long-term, serious marital discord can have significant emotional and physical effects on children. Although most couples experience some marriage problems, the occasional argument will not adversely affect children. Rather, it is frequent and aggressive arguments or those that disrupt normal family functioning that have traumatic effects on kids, explains psychologist Suzanne Phillips on PBS's "This Emotional Life."
Children who grow up with parents who have a bad marriage may show unhealthy perfectionism. They may set unhealthily high standards for academic performance and show significant upset if they cannot meet their own expectations. That said, exposure to marital discord can hamper children’s problem-solving skills, making academic success difficult. In addition to showing academic perfection, older children may take on parenting responsibilities of younger children and believe that they must act as a parental figure to younger children and protect them from parental arguments.
Anxiety issues, such as nightmares, fearfulness, jumpiness and feelings of apprehension can stem from the trauma of a bad marriage. Deborah Corbitt-Shindler of Southern Methodist University found that children who felt threatened by their parents’ interactions, particularly low levels of violence, are at increased risk of developing trauma from the bad marital relationship. In children, this may take the form of stomach aches, insomnia or separation anxiety. Even sleeping infants can develop anxiety from hearing the background noise of a parental argument.
Researcher Gordon Harold of Cardiff University found that mood problems are a relatively typical trauma response to parents’ marital discord. Harold found that both active arguing and the “silent treatment” negatively affected kids’ moods. While these mood problems may include tearfulness or looks of sadness, silence and withdrawal are also common symptoms, says Harold. These mood problems in childhood can be long-lasting and extend even into adulthood.
The domestic abuse shelter Community Overcoming Relationship Violence explains that children who are exposed to parents’ abusive acts are at significant risk of experiencing social problems, particularly as teens. In particular, exposure to an abusive marriage puts children at risk for poor academic performance, drug use, self-destructive behaviors and suicidal tendencies. They may also struggle to form meaningful relationships with peers.
Although witnessing marital conflict can have negative effects on children of all ages, fighting in front of children does not need to lead to lasting trauma, Yale child psychology professor Alan E. Kazdin tells the “Wall Street Journal.” Kazdin explains that when parents make an effort to show positive or constructive interactions after an argument, children will have less anxiety and may even learn conflict resolution skills.
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- PBS: This Emotional Life: Protecting Children From the Impact of Marital Strife
- SMU Research: Children’s Sense of Threat From Parental Fighting Determines Trauma Symptoms
- Good Morning America: Fighting in Front of Children, Emotionally Damaging
- Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse: Effects on Children & Teens
- Wall Street Journal: The Family That Fights Together
Anna Green has been published in the "Journal of Counselor Education and Supervision" and has been featured regularly in "Counseling News and Notes," Keys Weekly newspapers, "Travel Host Magazine" and "Travel South." After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school, then earned her master's of science in mental health counseling. She is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group and personal coaching service.