Protecting Children from the Impact of Marital Strife This Emotional Life - PBS

Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Relationships / Blog

    Suzanne Phillips, PsyD

Suzanne Phillips, PsyD's Bio

Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.

Protecting Children from the Impact of Marital Strife


Topics

A study reported by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, at the American Psychological Association’s Convention in San Diego this month indicated that research shows that childhood trauma and adversity can actually shorten a child’s lifespan by 7 to 15 years. Such adverse events include losing a parent, being abused or witnessing parental marital strife.

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.

Domestic Violence officially means any incident of threatening behavior, violence, or abuse between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members. What is left out of the definition is the collateral damage to the children who are put in physical and psychological danger every time they witness such violence in their home.

Whereas there are many unforeseeable traumatic events that children face for which their parents have no control, marital strife is different. Parents can control and reduce 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 about 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.

  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. It is 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 in the “other room” – which unless you have cement walls is usually audible – the most effective thing you can do for yourself, your partner and the children in the aftermath of strife is “make meaning” of what just happened. Think of “making meaning” 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, hungry or in pain?”

  “Is there another feeling that I just can’t face (grief, embarrassment, financial fear) that I am covering with anger?”

  “Am I blaming my partner for something out of their control – so the dishwasher broke?

  “This is a major problem but it is not something to fight about now.”

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 show them that it has ended and we can “go on.”

  Whether you invite the kids to bake, shoot hoops, walk the dog or play video games, you have changed the situation from anxiety and anger to safety and connection.

  While engaged, help them make sense of what just happened:

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

“I just figured out that I am really tired that's why I was yelling so much – I’m sorry guys – I have to remember to catch up on some sleep.”

Prevent Silence From Getting Too Loud

The antidote to screaming in the bedroom is not becoming dead silent or giving your partner the silent treatment in front of the children. It carries with it tension and anger and precludes “moving on.” The silent treatment is just another version of assault. 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 or abandonment by the other parent.

  It prevents what children need most – your consideration of the problem with your partner and/or seeking professional help to do so.

Protect Their Childhood Memories

No matter how much stress you are feeling as a couple or how difficult things are going – don’t cancel the long awaited Disney Vacation or make Christmas a nightmare.

As Viktor Frankl shares in his powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, when 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 the children – they are transformed by the shared pleasure of seeing their children’s delight. It is often an unexpected point of re-connection.

Take Care of Yourself

There is no question that the joy that children bring comes with its share of pain and demands. The combination of sleep deprivation and anxiety alone, from infants that can’t sleep, school children who won’t sleep, and teens who don’t come home to sleep, is enough to ignite marital discord in even the most stable of parents.

Such stress is but one example of the value and need for self-care by parents in the form of couple time with other adults, planned R&R, and predictable private time together. The more connected, the more time to know and be known by your partner – the more manageable the stress and disagreements in the context of a loving relationship.

Ultimately, your children will be happier and safer.