Many of us will remember what it was like to listen to our parents arguing. The feelings of helplessness, panic and sadness. A desire to block it out or run away.
Yet it can be easy to forget this as a parent later in life. We can get so mixed up in arguments with our own partner that we don’t see things from the perspective of our children - who may be going through something very similar to what we once felt.
It’s no secret that parental arguments can have a negative effect on children. The research tells us that parental conflict that is frequent, intense, and unresolved is damaging for families. The different ways in which this can occur, though, aren’t always as obvious. And it can be easy to fail to appreciate how long-lasting these effects can be - sometimes carrying on for years as these children become adults themselves.
When parents argue - managing conflict
We learn much of what we come to know about relationships from our parents or carers. As children, we mimic their behaviour - both consciously and subconsciously.
As a result, when a child sees the adults they live with arguing constantly, one thing they may learn is that conflict is the natural response to difference. If they see their parents turn to conflict frequently, they may come to believe that this is how disagreements should be resolved.
The consequences of this can go in a couple of directions. They may copy this behaviour directly and learn to become fairly argumentative themselves - being quick to anger and defensiveness or refusing to listen to opinions contrary to their own.
They may raise their voice a lot and come to see working out differences as a case of ‘who wins’ - always trying to hold the upper hand in adult relationships, rather than approach disagreements as a conversation or truly appreciate their partner’s point of view.
Alternatively, they may become very avoidant of conflict - so tired or even traumatised by their parents constant arguing that disagreements with other people may create a sense of real panic in them. They may shut off when they sense that an argument could be coming - as an adult, freezing their partner out or just refusing to engage point blank.
Arguing a lot of the time tends to take up a lot of emotional energy. Parents who do this may have little to spare in terms of attending to their children’s needs. There is a definite link between poor relationships and poor mental health- sometimes it is hard to know which one happened first and it can become a vicious cycle for parents in these patterns of conflict. When we feel drained and low, we find it harder to ‘tune in’ to our children and check out how they are feeling. It’s also harder to prioritise their thoughts and feelings and recognise the value in our relationships with them.
As a result, the child may come to learn, over time, not to express these needs. If their parents never seem to want to hear what they have to say, or that they’re so wrapped up in their own conflict that the child’s emotions don’t even factor, the child may eventually come to internalise this as a belief. They may also come to believe that the consequences of expressing emotional needs can be negative, having been rebuffed by an already frazzled or angry parent after doing so.
This can have very negative consequences later in life. An ability to express our emotions is intrinsic to having healthy adult relationships. We need to be able to tell our partners what’s wrong when something is - or risk conflicts going unresolved. If we don’t feel able to express ourselves or associate the act of doing so with negative consequences, this can mean difficulties get swept under the carpet, leading to a buildup of resentment and frustration. Children may also mimic parents’ inability to regulate appropriately; flying off the handle at the smallest of things or not having the emotional resilience required to deal with things that life can throw at us.
Part of the terror of parental arguments is anticipating when the next one will arrive. If arguments are happening so regularly that it’s more a question of when than if, this can begin to affect the child’s feelings and ideas when it comes to stability and trust.
It can teach them to view the resolution as a temporary thing - a momentary break before conflict inevitably erupts again. Over time, this can begin to engender a real sense of cynicism when it comes to relationships - a belief that, even if things are going well, it’s only a matter of time before they won’t be again. As an adult, this belief might play out as a tendency to self-sabotage: to make things wrong before they go wrong anyway - to hurt, rather than be hurt.
A further consequence of this breakdown of trust can be the development of avoidant behaviours around home life in general. The child may come to view the home as a place of conflict and may want to avoid coming back as much as possible.
They may start to spend more and more time outside of the house or begin to seek a sense of community and stability from other sources. In more extreme cases, this can be one of the reasons that young people join gangs - to gain, however problematically, a sense of family that they aren’t getting at home. It also places these children at more risk from adults who want to groom and exploit them.
In counselling, we sometimes talk about conflict as taking place on a triangle - with perpetrator, victim and rescuer on the three points. When conflict takes the shape of a perpetrator attacking a victim - which it often does when parents argue - the witness to this conflict may wish to help the victim, and so become the rescuer. If this person is a child, however, it puts them in a desperate position: wanting to solve their parents’ argument, but having little ability to do so.
This can make the child feel very guilty. It puts them in the position of having to do something very grown up - and something they have little likelihood of being able to do. Children whose parents argued a lot often talk later about feeling that some aspect of their childhood was denied them - that they had to learn to be an adult very fast. This can create real feelings of resentment towards their parents - and it can further contribute towards avoidant patterns around conflict in adult relationships, which may come to remind them of the parental relationship that made them feel so inadequate.
Mitigating the effects of parental conflict
What makes parental conflict so potentially damaging is also the thing that can make parental influence so positive.
Just as children learn to copy their parents and can inherit any negative behaviours, so they can also learn to emulate the positive things their parents do. Just as they may find themselves become argumentative and untrusting later in life as a result of parental influence, so they may also learn to be mature, respectful and communicative if they see their parents doing these things.
The answer to mitigating the effects of parental conflict is the obvious one: trying to be good role models. Simply put: learn to deal with differences productively and your children are more likely to do the same.
In a sense, being a good parent is a case of putting your children’s self-esteem above your own - being willing and able to see beyond the way any arguments with your partner may make you feel to see how your responses will shape your child’s sense of self.
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