Your kids are aware of your marital conflict, but what are you doing about it?

Any child who was raised in a conflict- filled environment, including mine, can describe the nature of the fights( or what they purportedly involved), how frequently they took place, and how they felt. When parents are at odds with one another , there is obvious tension in the home . Children are aware that fights are happening, whether they are loud and violent in the living room or in harsh whispers after bed. Youdid not know when you were younger, did you?( I ask because it ‘s very likely that you picked up this pattern in your family of origin if you are currently experiencing a lot of marital conflict.)

Children are very sensitive to the tone and atmosphere of their homes. This is especially true for Highly Sensitive Kids. They absorb the feeling of their environments. When conflict occurs on a regular basis (let’s just call this every other week or more; for violent fights, any number is too many), your child’s developing brain and nervous system is inundated with stress hormones. This early trauma sets them up for hypervigilance, low self-esteem, and increased susceptibility to issues later in life, both mental (i.e., depression) and physical (e.g., migraines, IBS).

Do your kids act like they don’t notice the fighting? This is their coping mechanism. If your child was hooked up to a heart rate monitor and their salivary cortisol was measured during your “quiet” fights, you would see a heartbreaking spike in both. Children pretend to ignore what they can’t control. Think of this as the “freeze” response in “fight, flight, freeze” rather than “not noticing.”

Here are some other distressing consequences of children’s exposure to parental conflict:

They feel they have to ally with one parent over the other
They perceive one parent as “good” and one as “bad”
They feel unsafe in their homes
They feel they have to be “perfect” and have no problems because they do not want to add to the stress of the home or upset parents who are already upset
Conversely, some kids subconsciously try to be “bad” in order to distract their parents from fighting (and also to punish them, on a deep level, for making the child’s life so stressful)
They learn that intimate relationships are a source of stress and anger, not joy or comfort
They replicate whatever dynamics they see in their later romantic relationships (you are likely to see replication of your marital conflict even in their teenage relationships if you look at them objectively)

What if you are truly able to hide most of your conflict? I will not lie to you; research suggests that if there is NO open conflict, divorce is worse for kids. This is when parents are separately unhappy but put on a game face and the kids never know. (Read this fascinating book on the legacy of divorce; but keep in mind that was 20 years ago; nowadays, with 50-50 custody, more dad involvement, better child support laws and increased awareness of the impact of divorce on kids’ mental health, some of her findings are no longer as valid.)

A marriage where most conflict is hidden is a rare occurrence, because most people are nowhere near as good actors as they think they are. But if you really can pretend to be happy with your spouse and your only goal is raising happy kids, research indicates that kids are happier and are more financially and emotionally stable with two parents in the same home. But if remaining in a loveless conflict-free marriage is massively worse for the mental health of the parents, then remember that they are people too, who deserve a chance to be happy.

If you are telling yourself that your children don’t notice or care much about your marital conflict, try to tally up the times, over the course of one week, that you see your child’s expression or behavior change in response to you and your spouse’s fighting. Add to the tally any times that your child tries to intervene in, distract from, or mediate the conflict. Add also the number of times your child makes a negative comment about one or both parents that is in the same vein as things they have heard you fight about (e.g., for younger kids: “Boy, Daddy really is messy, bad Daddy.” For older kids, it’s more like: “God, you really never let anyone alone, Mom, you nag all the time.”)

If you train yourself to objectively observe how your children respond to your marital conflict, you will undoubtedly recognize that they in fact notice and respond a lot more than you were wishfully thinking they did. The guilt that follows this recognition needs to be taken as a motivating force to mobilize you into action. You can no longer leave your children in this climate and put your head in the sand. It doesn’t matter what you did in the past. Once you admit that your children are being put in harm’s way by your conflict, you need to make a decision to TRY EVERYTHING to repair the marriage and change your communication styles, or, if you’ve already done everything suggested, it may be time to consider ending things as amicably as you can.”

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