“My parents were arguing and my sister was only a few months old,” Sabina said. “I will never be able to recall what was said, only that I grabbed my sister when it began, and hid both of us behind the washer. The emotions I feel when I think of that night are overwhelming and make me very anxious. On the other hand, I knew even at five years old that I loved my sister and didn’t want her to experience the things I had and would have done anything to protect her.”
Not every argument escalates to violence, but every argument creates stress. Even at five years old, Sabina was keenly aware of the negative energy, felt threatened and tried to protect a sibling. She can’t recall the words her parents said, but she remembers her feelings clearly.
What you do in front of your children matters
Abigail grew up in a stable home. Her parents rarely disagreed and if they did, it wasn’t in front of the children. She said there was only the occasional glance or discussion about busy schedules or chores. She felt conflict was resolved quickly. She appreciated their example.
“Kids are sophisticated conflict analysts,” said Diana Divecha, Ph.D. “The degree to which they detect emotion is much more refined than parents might guess…. Kids can tell the difference between a resolution that’s been forced versus one that’s resolved with positive emotion, and it matters.”
Abigail’s husband, however, wasn’t as lucky
“My husband came from a home where his father could be quite mean,” Abigail said. “His mom picked herself off the floor if she spoke up, so usually, she just tried to do whatever she could to please him. [As a consequence, my husband and I] work very hard together to create a safe and happy place for our kids.”
Our kids pay more attention to our actions than our words. Abigail’s husband has to work hard to learn what Abigail learned so naturally.
Children are like sponges, absorbing knowledge by watching and listening
Barb remembers watching her parents argue on a long, hot desert road trip. She noted when her father became understandably upset, her mother started making jokes. Soon they were all laughing. Because she watched the situation play out, she learned a valuable lesson about how appropriate humor can defuse a difficult situation.
Children between ages two and six feel like the center of the universe.
At this stage, children are egocentric and assume if parent’s are fighting it is their fault or they can fix it.
Child development theorist Jean Piaget explained, “Childrens’ thoughts and communications are typically egocentric. Egocentrism refers to the child’s inability to see another person’s point of view. According to Piaget, the egocentric child assumes that other people see, hear and feel exactly the same as the child does.”
This means that young children will be sure they caused your fight, blame themselves, try to intervene or try to stop the argument.
An excellent publication by the Public Health Agency of Canada lists common thoughts and misconceptions of children witnessing a parent being abused. The child might think everything will go back to normal when the fight is over, or that their parents won’t fight again if they behave well.
Older children may take on the unnecessary responsibility of making peace
Advocates who work with survivors of intimate partner abuse regularly hear youth explain how they tried to get between adults to stop fights. This can lead to safety issues for children.
An article by Psychology Today on why children kill parents reported, “90 percent have been abused by their parents. In-depth portraits of such youths have frequently shown that they killed because they could no longer tolerate conditions at home.”
The Public Health Agency shared thoughts and feelings teens may have when parents fight. Teens may think they could have prevented the fight, they wonder if their future relationships will be similar and they worry that the neighbors will hear the fighting.
Here are some tips for managing conflict
As a couple, agree on how you will handle conflict with your children. What will you model for them? What will you share with them?
Create hand signals to let each other know when you need a break.
Set boundaries. For example, agree to not call names and decide what topics are appropriate for your children.
Plan to reassure children, if you can, that it is not about them.
Write down your rules for fair fighting and revisit them as you manage conflict.
Learn how to manage conflict and fight fair for the sake of your kids. Your marriage and family will be so much happier for it.
Editor’s note: Names were changed to protect the privacy of the interview subjects.