A young child begins to display emotions such as happiness, distress, and abhorrence within the first few months of life. This is based on the evidence that emotional development begins to occur during infancy and gradually, emotions start to become distinct as the child matures through different stages of life. Recon your child crying a pool of tears for having you out of sight for too long?
Most of all, it is in those prime years when children begin to make sense of their surroundings and of the relationships that are in it. And, it comes as no surprise that a great deal of learning that typically happens for an average child during these early years, is through their observation and interaction with their parents. In other words, this implies that parents have a tremendous influence on their children's overall development, which includes mental and emotional health. too.
Impact of Conflict
When we acknowledge that our children learn about relationships primarily within the family unit, then it makes sense to also acknowledge that they learn about conflict from the home, too. Parental conflict inevitably exists in some form or the other in every household and most of us experience it. However, it is the degree or intensity and the nature of conflict - whether it is covert (hidden) or overt (obvious) - which determines its impact on the individuals involved. An extensive amount of research has proven that frequent, intense, and poorly resolved conflicts between parents can place children at a higher risk of mental health issues, along with several other problems.
When parents frequently engage in arguments, unpleasant exchange of speech, hostile behaviors, and a show of disrespect to each other, they are in effect providing a “model” for their children. Whether this is the case for parents who are living together, or separated. This model portrays the management of emotional tone and relationship problem solving and it involuntarily extends towards promoting frustration and anxiety in children, whether they are young or grown adults.
It is important to help understand the mechanism behind this rigid cycle. In the advent of inter-parental conflict, children's psychological responses are processed in two stages.
Stage 1: Awareness
This is the primary stage, where the child becomes aware that a conflict is taking place and it begins to stimulate their emotions.
Certain factors play a role in influencing the exposure to the conflict, at this stage. These include the intensity of the conflict and the resolution potential, in addition to other discerning factors such as the child's temperament, gender, quality of parent-child relationship and history of exposure to conflict.
Stage 2: Interpretation
At this stage, the child tries to understand why the conflict is taking place and whether they should act in response. It involves children trying to make sense of what might have caused the conflict to take place, who is to be blamed or held accountable for it (in their view), and additionally how best to cope with the conflict.
Children who perceive conflict as a threat to their emotional security, are often the ones who are unable to cope and as a result experience feeling helpless and more anxious. There are some children who hold themselves responsible for not being able to help end the conflict and resultantly experience feelings of shame, guilt, self-worthlessness, and depression.
According to research carried out by the Early Intervention Foundation on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, at the University of Sussex in the U.K. (2016), there is a strong body of evidence that suggests the severity of damage to children's overall development owing to parental conflict. It is worth noting that these outcomes impact children across childhood and adolescence, posing a life-long risk. Here are some of the most commonly associated adverse outcomes.
1. Psychological Challenges
When children are exposed to frequent inter-parental conflict and abusive behavior between the parents, it makes them internalize these negative emotions deeply. They might begin to worry too much about the conflicts, the potential reasons leading to them, and the anticipated outcomes which they may not be ready to face, such as family dissolution. Hence, they may exhibit symptoms of:
- withdrawal, inhibition, fearfulness
- anxiety, depression, suicidality
- lower self-esteem
Among very young children, such as those under the age of 3 years, it is relatively common to witness temper tantrums, as a result. And, if these tantrums become habitual, it can lead to persistent aggression which is extremely unhealthy and cause long-term negative outcomes on the child's growth and development.
2. Physical Health Problems
The overall stress that a child may experience can have a disastrous impact on their physical health over a period of time. Common illnesses tied to increased stress include:
- fatigue or general weakness
- abdominal stress
- weaker immune system
- stunted growth
- hormonal imbalances lead to risky behaviors, such as
- early sexual activity
- substance abuse
3. Strained Social and Inter-personal Relationships
Children belonging to high-conflict homes are likely to develop:
- poor emotional regulation
- low self-worth
- lagging social competence
- weak problem-solving skills
- poor socialising skills
When children are exposed to frequent outbursts and conflicts within the home, they begin to lose confidence and inhibits them from approaching other children and socializing at school.
Due to their antisocial behaviour, these children are more likely to be isolated by their teachers and peers, causing problems such as the ability to develop competent social skills which they could otherwise achive by taking part in extracurricular activities like sports. This anti-social behaviour, when extended into adulthood can create serious barriers, even employability.
Oftentimes, because these children experience poor emotional regulation between their parents, they tend to be accustomed to this as a norm and reciprocate it with their peers, leading to peer rejection. This can create problems into the future, with regards to spousal relationships.
4. Strained Sibling Relationships
Inter-parental conflict can also negatively impact sibling relationships. Although there may be a difference in the level of exposure to inter-parental conflict between older and younger siblings, research suggests that a hostile or high conflict home environment is likely to promote similar behavior and emotional responses, thereby leading to increased sibling conflict. The reason being that during episodes of inter-parental conflict, siblings tend to redirect anger between parents to themselves/another sibling, or siblings form an alliance with one parent.
Siblings also play a vital role in terms of the development of social competence and emotional well-being. However, in such cases where inter-parental conflict leads to increased sibling rivalry, chances of benefiting from meaningful interpersonal skills also become slim.
5. Hindrances to Academic Performance
When children are stressed and worried about family problems, they are mentally drained and may struggle at school or college with poor grades. Owing to their distracted mind and inability to concentrate on the present events, they may not be able to engage proactively in classroom discussions and benefit from peer learning.
Moreover, since these children are more likely to suffer from lower self-worth and confidence, they will be unable to build social support networks to seek help and build competence.
Practical Tips for Managing Parent Conflicts
Conflict is inevitable in every household and it is near to impossible not to experience it within your marital relationship. But, what is important for parents to remember is that they need to be able to work through their differences in an effective and collaborative manner in order to promote positive emotional regulation for their children.
Here are some practical ways to manage parental conflict.
1. Avoid arguing in front of your children.
It is best to avoid getting into a disagreement in front of your children, if possible. Being aware of your spouse, you know the triggers. Leave discussions that you expect to be headed for a later time when the children are not around if these conflicts cannot be managed with respect.
For those moments when arguments happen spontaneously, it is best to mutually agree to take a time out and talk when you have both calmed down. You would be following a Sunnah by doing so.
2. Practice active listening.
This is not easy, especially during moments of conflict when you feel like you really have to get your point across and be heard. But, it is definitely something that parents must agree to work upon if they want to be able to resolve conflicts. Take turns to share your concerns, and avoid cutting off each other during disscusion.
3. Set boundaries.
It is important to be respectful. Watch your tone and your body language and try not to be offensive as that can make things worse and lead to matters remaining unresolved.
4. Find a resolution.
Brainstorm possible ways of resolving the conflict. Identify areas which are not acceptable to either of you, and then gradually work toward negotiating a midway path that can be sustained into the future.
5. Set aside the ego.
Realize that blaming each other will not help work toward a resolution. Instead of pointing fingers, try and validate each other’s feelings as a couple and talk it out in a gentle manner.
Positive parenting practices form a solid foundation for your children and, healthy parental relationships are a precursor to promoting your children’s safety, security, and holistic well-being. It is important to be develop a greater awareness about mental health and its related impact and to invest in your relationships in order for your children to develop similar habits and sound parenting practices themselves into the future.
Umm Ahmed is an early childhood educator and mother of three boys. Always on the quest to learn, she is passionate about seeking knowledge and passing it on to others. A writer in the making, she draws inspiration through deep conversations, laws of nature, and her own children. She and her family are currently living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.