Think of the last argument that you had with your partner.
If you have children, where were they during your dispute? Did you turn them away? Did you notice them joining the fray at any point? Did you even notice them?
Researchers at the University of Rochester recently assessed the process of adolescents and preschoolers during parental arguments and the effects on their internalized (anxiety, worrying) and externalized (opposition, attention challenges) behaviors.
The study distinguishes between two types of ways that children insert themselves during and/or after parental conflict.
Some children mediate parental conflict serve as interpreters, marriage therapists, and comforters of their parents. A child may try explain to one parent what the other parent is trying to say. A teenager may follow one parent after an argument and check in, allowing his/her parent to emotionally vent to or confide in their adolescent. (In my own family of origin, this is a role I often found myself playing as a teenager.)
Other children coercively involve themselves in their parent’s conflict by routinely siding with one parent against another, confronting a parent’s behavior, or physically protecting or removing a parent.
The study identified the pattern of involvement during parental arguments and tracked their behavioral process over the course of a year. Children and teenagers who experienced higher amounts of parental conflict (number of fights and/or intensity of arguments) were far more likely to have instances of anger, opposition, and anxiety than children who experienced low amounts of conflict, regardless of their involvement style (mediation or coercion).
Arguing in front of your children can be detrimental for his/her health. If your family operates like this, here are some things you can do to change the ineffective family process:
Do not invite your child to the argument. Some parents invite their children to mediate or coercively involve themselves. This process actually creates more anxiety for your child because it forces him/her to choose sides. Eliminate statements that begin with “Tell your father/mother to _____.” Following an argument, if you initiate communication with your child, do it to comfort them, not yourself.
Observe the way that your child gets involved. Sit down with your partner in a peaceful environment (i.e. not in the middle or immediately following an argument) and ask about your child’s experience. Take your child’s perspective: This conversation is for your child to express his/her feelings, not for you to defend what you said in the argument.
Create a space in your home that is strictly for intense conversations. Ask your partner to join you in that space, and limit the amount of time you spend there (no more than 15 minutes). Remember, 70% of relational conflict is unresolvable due to personality or life stage differences.
Set boundaries with your children. Gently ask them to go to their rooms, and allow yourself to table your argument until they leave. (Know also that some children may create a scene if you do this, taking the attention from you and putting it on themselves. Work together as parents to comfort/discipline your child, and comment on how well you work together for that problem.) If your child tries to comfort you, thank them, but also remind them they are children.
Apologize in front of your child. Identify your own role in the negative process with your partner. Let your children see you hug, kiss, and talk about alternative processes. Apologize to your child as well if they get involved in the argument.
Our couples therapists can help you and your partner develop more effective ways of handling conflict–respectful, organized methods that leave you feeling more refreshed and valued and your children less anxious and more secure. Give us a call at 617-750-0183 or schedule an appointment online.