Written by Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist, PsychMatters Centre, written for Living & Loving Magazine.

As parents we often lose sight of the wonderment and joy in what our baby brings. The toll that sleep deprivation, co-ordinating feeding times, teething, ailments, and having to squeeze in a quick shower, coupled with the biggest responsibility – taking care of another human being, often over-shadows the first giggle, the first steps, the first words and the connection between you and your spouse.

In response to a question in my initial parent consultation, “What was the nature of your relationship during pregnancy and in the early months of your baby’s life?” parents reply, “We fought a lot, but our child was so little he won’t remember “ or “ Our baby didn’t understand what was going on.” Parents are often mistaken about the impact intense fighting has on their baby.

Parental conflict sends your child messages about relationships, love, and ultimately about their sense of self in the world. In the eyes of your toddler, any negative comments about your spouse, becomes a direct judgment of your child. Thus limiting your child’s exposure to charged fighting, is vital to your child’s sense of esteem and psychological well-being. Most parents want secure, happy, confident and well-adjusted children, and frequent fighting or outbursts can break all that down and have the opposite effect. The American Psychological Association indicates that children who are consistently exposed to intense parental fighting, manifest with emotional, behavioural and physiological distress, such as sleep difficulties, changes in appetite, stomach aches, constipation or diarrhoea, lowered immune systems with greater risk of having colds and flu. Emotionally they suffer with anxiety, lowered mood, temper tantrums, clumsiness and loss of energy, with more crying, whining, regressive and separation difficulties. In another study conducted by the University of Rochester, it revealed that children who showed distress due to parental conflict, showed higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In another six-year research published in the February 2011 edition of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, it indicated that there was increased sweat gland activity, rapid breathing and increased heart rates in children subjected to on-going parental fighting. The study also indicated that these children’s stress levels returned to normal when their parents stopped fighting.

How we respond to our child in the first few years determines his life disposition of trust or mistrust. Infants do not have emotional boundaries and cannot separate who owns the emotions or to whom emotions are directed at. An infant does not have the ability to remove themselves from you physically and psychologically, and therefore takes your feelings as a direct reflection of who they are and in establishing their identity. These negative emotions can also have a profound and long-lasting impact by internalising confusion, chaos and anxiety, and changing neurological imprints in the brain. Even your body language, your tone of voice, and what you say are absorbed by your child, even more so when they are little.

That said, disagreements are a normal part of any relationship dynamic. It is unrealistic to believe that a relationship will always remain harmonious, or that as a couple you always need to conceal disagreements from your child. The trick is to demonstrate effective ways of solving your fights. Also notice whether the time spent in the space between you and your spouse is wrought with more bickering, or whether it is balanced with positive inputs. With frequent disagreements, this could chip away at the connection between you and your loved one, creating more emotional and physical distance between you. At times it is better to be honest with your child about the spousal tension, as your child can pick up emotionally charged energy, particularly anger. This demonstrates to your child that what they are experiencing is true and valid, and not squashed by denying that everything is “fine.” This could be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate how to resolve issues, where a person can hold two opposing feelings at the same time, such as love and anger towards another, and making the effort to resolve or reach middle ground, in a respectful manner, which is paramount in teaching children about life skills and relationships.

Remember though there is a difference between every day disagreements and fighting where there is more emotional charge involved – screaming, attacking, swearing, disrespectful interactions with no resolution – leaving one or all family members feeling minimised, angrier or fearful. Living within such an atmosphere with regular arguing or at a high pitch, is very distressing for toddlers, as they are unable to understand what the nature of the fighting is about, and absorb only the negative energy, unable to remove themselves from the situation, or unable to verbalise distress, coupled with parents being less emotionally available as the focus becomes more about the fight.

Even though children show emotional, behavioural and biological responses to parental conflicts, arguing can be positive, if used productively with an outcome for improvement in mind. Couples who work out differences and are able to reach compromise, demonstrate good role modelling. As parents, you can equip yourself with the following tips in order to help during a tense situation and at the same time ensure a stable home environment for all:

  • Speak with your spouse in a positive manner – remember your child’s self-image is constructed from each parent
  • Reducing fights between you and your spouse reduces parent-child conflict
  • Use uncharged language
  • Choose your battles wisely – recognise the control you do have over your situation while accepting what you cannot control
  • Compliment each other’s efforts more than expressing dissatisfaction – this sends the message that you appreciate each other, shows respect, and relying on each other for support
  • Be sensitive to each other’s daily challenges by checking in with each other
  • Do not accuse but rather focus on the problem
  • Create a positive emotional environment for your toddler – comforting, supporting and responding to your child’s needs helps minimise the negative impact
  • Stick to household rules and routines – this helps maintain stability and consistency
  • Remember to breathe
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