Parental Conflict Affects Children
Joe would hide in his room during his parents' arguments, trying to comfort or distract his younger brother. Today, when his wife is upset with him, he wants to retreat and avoid her anger. So, it's difficult for them to discuss and resolve issues.
Jane remembers her parents would argue repeatedly about money. The arguments never seemed to get to any type of resolution. Now, as an adult, Jane insists on controlling the finances in her marriage.
Larry's parents never seemed to get through a weekend without a blowup. Later, in his teens, he realized their alcohol use was an underlying cause. Still, now in his late 50s, Larry frustrates his wife when he shuts down at the smallest hint of a disagreement.
As adults, these folks still feel the impact, sometimes unconsciously, of their parents' discord. With the help of ever-advancing science, we now have a greater understanding of both why and how parental conflict affects children. We have now confirmed, though years of research, that our childhood experiences -- what we felt, how we were parented and what we observed -- can affect us later in our own adult relationships.
It's not unusual for couples to say that one of the reasons they seek counseling is because they fear their arguing might impact their kids.
How the Quality of Your Marriage Affects Your Kids
As we've seen above, children learn from your marriage and take with them into adulthood ways they coped or adapted.
Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, points out in her first book for couples, "If we are struggling in an unhappy relationship, we are often off balance emotionally and find it harder to be open and really tuned in to our youngsters. Because we are not emotionally present for them, they miss out on our nurturing and guidance." She adds, "Partners' emotional distancing from each other often frequently leads to distancing from the kids."
At times, parental conflict leads to behavior problems with the children, as they express their own disconnection and needs through acting out in negative ways.
Ok, So this Is a Bit Scary
I'll boil down the science for you, so you can easily understand how parents arguing affects children and their developing brains.
An infant's caretakers activate the growth of the brain through emotional availability and through comforting interactions. An infant is wired to depend on you for his or her very survival. At the same time, the different parts of your baby's brain develop as a result of the quality of interaction with the parents.
Healthy early relationships teach children to feel good about themselves, to trust others and to regulate their emotions. When we are soothed, we learn to soothe ourselves and, later, others. We learn to be both independent and close to significant others in our lives. And, the parts of our brain that help us do this are developed in early infancy.
As Dr. Louis Cozolino, an authority on neuroscience, writes, "Raising a child is a daunting responsibility, one that includes building a brain that will last a lifetime -- for better or for worse."
Can We Break Our Bad Habits?
One of the most exciting areas of recent scientific learning is that our own adult brains can change. It was long thought that early childhood was the time when our brains were formed and then set for life.
Big sigh of relief! The recent term "neuroplasticity" is getting more and more attention and study. We can learn new habits, diminish old ones and bring about profound changes in how we function.
Which makes a lot of sense. Think about a new, recent skill you learned -- a task at work, improving your golf game, a new computer program. We are constantly learning. Think of all the electronics that have only come to us in the past few years -- our smart phones, DVRs and electronic banking. They all come naturally to us now -- after a brief learning curve.
I've been privileged to watch couples transform their relationships, to learn to calmly discuss difficult issues, to stand together to solve problems and to renew the closeness and connection they shared in their early times together. They can, as well, turn the tide in how parents arguing affects children.
How Counseling Reduces Parental Conflict
In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy -- the most successful couples counseling approach -- you'll learn first to understand what we call a "negative cycle" of arguing and distancing. You'll learn from the start that the negative cycle is your enemy -- not each other.
Importantly, as part of therapy, couples also learn how their parenting and their marriage are affected by their own childhood models of relationships that they learned growing up. They recognize that their parents had good intentions, but may have lacked skills or awareness that would have improved their own marriage and their parenting.
We weave this newly gained understanding into how the couple falls into the negative cycle, and then in learning how to exit the cycle and then talk through their different viewpoints.
Couples learn to access and explain to their partner their deeper emotions and feelings. And, very importantly, they learn to much more deeply understand their partner and their partner's true feelings.
When we're upset with our partner, what he or she sees are a range of emotions such as anger, shutting down or withdrawing, defending, frustration and irritability. Underneath the surface, however, we discover that there are more profound feelings of hurt, sadness and fear. Here's where change can happen: Couples are able to see how much their partner cares and their partner's hidden fear of becoming more distant.
When you fell in love, a powerful bond was formed. When something goes wrong and it's hard to talk about, the bond begins to fray. As the connection begins to feel more distant, it becomes more likely the couple may argue or distance from each other. As that pattern becomes "the norm," couples often say they feel trapped and stuck.
More good news: Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy is a brief model. You'll develop a new awareness and set of tools that you can take into the future to help each other through rough times while staying close and connected.
Linda Schwartz is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works exclusively with couples and individuals on relationship issues. She uses Emotionally Focused Couple therapy, the most effective approach to helping couples recapture their close connection, to learn to resolve issues through deepening their understanding of each other's needs and to heal infidelity and any past hurts in the relationship. Linda offers a free, 15-minute phone consultation to answer your questions about the counseling process. She can be reached at 602-882-0533 or Linda@awarecounseling.com.