Children are receptive to the intricate nuances and body language their parents display in front of them. As much as we would like to believe that our children are spared from the marital discord we experience, John Gottman’s research proves that children experience trauma when their parents argue and fight.
“Marital discord can influence children indirectly by decreasing the effectiveness of the parents’ monitoring, emotion coaching, and other parenting skills. And it can influence children by creating emotional distress on the children.” — The Gottman Institute¹
Of course, all couples will disagree from time to time, and marital conflict doesn’t necessarily portend a doomed relationship (nor a negative impact on the kids). But if you want to avoid inadvertently affecting your children with the disagreements you occasionally have with your spouse, it’s helpful to be aware of how marital conflict can have a negative impact and what you can do to buffer your kids against it.
“Our kids never know when we’re arguing because we never fight in front of them.” As parents, it may be tempting to believe this line of reasoning. But it might not be as accurate as you might think (or hope).
Is It Really Kept Behind Closed Doors? The Effects of Marital Conflict on Kids
Most parents know how attentive, receptive, and watchful children can be. Even when it seems that they aren’t listening, kids are often adept at noticing subtle interactions or whispered words. How many of us have had the experience of freezing and immediately wondering, upon hearing our young child blurt out an inappropriate phrase “Where on earth did they hear that?”.
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And it’s not just words. Kids quickly learn how to recognize non-verbal communication, including vocal tone, facial expressions, and body language. They can also pick up on emotional tension, even if they’re not able to fully articulate nor understand what they’re sensing. Many child psychologists believe that this inability to make sense of the negative energy they’re feeling from their parents can cause children to “act out” or become anxious, depressed, worried, or aggressive.
Even when parents attempt to brush their negative emotions under the rug, kids still may suffer. A recent 2020 study² published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that kids experience physical and neurochemical changes (e.g., sympathetic nervous system activation, a part of the fight or flight response) when their parents attempt to hide their own stressful feelings.
Repeatedly triggering a child’s fight or flight response may have short – and long-term implications for their health. But it’s also worth considering that if children see (or sense) a lot of conflict and negativity between their parents, they may eventually “learn” that this is how marriages are supposed to be, which could set them up for relationship problems of their own in the future.
4 Tips for Parents on Handling Marital Conflict More Effectively (While Minimizing the Impact on the Kids)
Here’s the reality: spouses argue. Sometimes couples will disagree, even heatedly. In fact, couples disagree with each other 69% of the time! Some of these disagreements are perpetual conflicts, meaning they won’t change. However, we must figure out a way to agree to disagree and de-escalate when our emotions manifest into physiological symptoms. We know enough from the data that repressing our emotions and avoiding conflict at all costs isn’t good for us or our children either. Sometimes a mindful “timeout” to calm down and regroup in thirty minutes can save you both from toxic conflict.
But most of us don’t exactly want to air our dirty laundry in front of our kids, either. So what to do?
Tips to Manage Conflict and Stop Arguing in Front of Kids
- Work on building a strong friendship with your spouse. Having a solid bond helps you avoid unnecessary conflict and (importantly) increases the odds that when you do end up in conflict, you’ll “fight fair” and maintain a level of respect toward each other. Working with a marriage counselor can be instrumental here, especially when it comes to learning how to communicate more effectively during the conflict.
- Learn and regularly practice good self-soothing habits. Self-soothing techniques like deep-breathing can help you stay calmer during and after an argument—and when you’re calmer, you increase the chances that your kids will stay calmer, too, since they’ll have less subtle negativity to pick up on.
- Protect your privacy, but be transparent. It’s certainly good practice to avoid fighting in front of your kids. You also need to be aware of how you speak about your spouse in front of your children and avoid venting about marital matters with them. And if you do end up fighting in front of your children, just make sure you make up in front of them, too. This models appropriate behavior for your kids and show them that Mom and Dad still love each other, even if they disagree or argue sometimes.
- Call a conscious timeout and plan to regroup to discuss it in 30 minutes. If the conflict triggers a high emotional response (ie your heart starts racing, you feel panicked, or become angry suddenly) the most productive thing to do is call a timeout and plan to discuss the issue after you have time to calm down and the kids are not around.
Parents: improving your marriage benefits you and your children. Contact The Marriage Restoration Project today to schedule a free consultation with Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin.
- “Parenting – Research”, The Gottman Institute. Referenced April 21, 2021, from https://www.gottman.com/about/research/parenting/.
- “Keep it to yourself? Parent emotion suppression influences physiological linkage and interaction behavior.” Publication: Journal of Family Psychology. Publisher: American Psychological Association. Date published: October 1, 2020. Authors: Waters, Sara F.; Karnilowics, Helena Rose; West, Tessa V.; Mendes, Wendy Berry. Publication URL: https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Ffam0000664.