“Unhealthy marriages characterized by substantial parental conflict pose a clear risk for child well-being, both because of the direct negative effects that result when children witness conflict between parents, and because of conflict’s indirect effects on parenting skills.”- Cummings and Davies, 1994; Webster-Stratton, 2003
“The poorer the quality of parents’ relationships, the more negative developmental outcomes in children. This is true in multiple ways and across a range of variables — sleep patterns, physical health, infant & toddler attachment, interpersonal competence, intellectual and emotional development, and social outcomes — and across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.”– Rhona Berens, Ph.D, CPCC
One of the gravest mistakes we can make as parents is to assume that our relationships do not impact our kids.
Here are some common myths and corresponding facts regarding the impact that the couple relationship has on children:
Myth # 1: They’re too young to understand.
Fact: “Researchers reveal that infants affected by rows at 9 months old suffer disrupted sleep patterns at 18 months old.” — Gordon Harold, Ph.D
Myth # 2: They’re not paying attention.
Fact: “Whether we like it or not, our children are watching us all of the time. The saying that children are like sponges absorbing the world around them is especially true of the emotional atmosphere that surrounds them.” — Lisa Firestone, Ph.D
Myth # 3: We hide it well.
Fact: “Some parents may think that they can avoid impacting their children by giving in, or capitulating, to end an argument. But that’s not an effective tactic. According to parents’ records of their fights at home and their children’s reactions, kids’ emotional responses to capitulation are ‘not positive’. Nonverbal anger and ‘stonewalling’ — refusing to communicate or cooperate — are especially problematic.” — Diana Divecha, Ph.D
Myth # 4: It doesn’t impact them.
Fact: “Research has found that when parents are in an unhappy marriage, the conflict compromises the social and emotional well-being of children by threatening their sense of security in the family. This in fact predicts the onset of problems during adolescence, including depression and anxiety.” — From Hey Sigmund: Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human
Myth # 5: As long as I love my kids, that’s all that matters.
Fact: “While actual divisions of childcare tasks such as feeding, dressing and taking time to play with kids were unrelated to children’s adjustment, it was the parents who were most satisfied with their arrangements with each other who had children with fewer behavior problems, such as acting out or showing aggressive behavior. It appears that while children are not affected by how parents divide childcare tasks, it definitely does matter how harmonious the parents’ relationships are with each other.” — Zack Ford, Think Progress
Myth # 6: I can separate my fights with my partner from my relationship with my kids.
Fact: “A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology looked at the effect marital squabbling had on parents’ relationships with kids. The researchers found, not surprisingly, that when a couple fights, that spills over to the relationship each parent has with his or her offspring. By the next day, most mother-child relationships were back on an even keel, while the fathers still reported things were tense.” — Belinda Luscombe, Time Magazine
Myth # 7: My kids know they can rely on me even though my partner and I do not get along.
Fact: “In a national, longitudinal study of 471 parents and their young adult children, marital conflict was associated with a lower tendency of young adults to name their parents as people who can provide them with help or assistance.” — Amato, Rezac, & Booth, 1995
Myth # 8: Frequent conflicts with my partner couldn’t possibly impact my kids’ health.
Fact: “Parental conflicts can lead to children’s maladjustment, which in turn results in negative effects on social, cognitive, educational and psycho-biological functions.” — Cummings & Davies, 2002
According to child and family therapist, Cathy Eugster, there are seven main ways that chronic parental conflict can be extremely harmful to children:
- Negative Impact on Children’s Mental Health
- Children Feel Unsafe
- Children Worry About Taking Sides
- Children Feel Guilty
- Poor Role-Modeling for Children
- Quality of Parenting Decreases
- Parent-Child Relationships May Suffer
This is not about never having conflict. It’s how we have conflict that matters the most. According to professors Mark Cummings and Patrick Davies, authors of the book Marital Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective, there are certain types of conflict behavior that are especially destructive to children:
- Verbal aggression like name-calling, insults, and threats of abandonment;
- Physical aggression like hitting and pushing;
- Silent tactics like avoidance, walking out, sulking or withdrawing;
- Capitulation — giving in that might look like a solution but isn’t a true one.
Even when mothers have the best of intentions and spend as much of their free time with their kids as possible, according to Carolyn and Phil Cowan, prolific researchers in the field of relationships: “the children do not fare well if the adults aren’t taking care of themselves and their relationships.”
The Cowans claim that it is absolutely crucial for parents to prioritize their couple relationships as well as taking the time to nurture and take care of themselves:
”Frazzled people with the best intentions but who are not themselves getting nurtured and befriended — and getting relief from looking after kids and family — are just not going to be as available with the energy it takes to be a strong parent…Those kids will not do as well.”– Carolyn Cowan, Ph.D
The bottom line is:
- It is impossible to neglect your relationship with your partner and for that to not have a negative impact on your kids.
- It’s not better for them if you co-exist and hate each other.
- It’s not better for them to stay together for their sake if you ignore your relationship.
- It’s your responsibility as their parents to work on your relationship.
- Making excuses to not address your issues will impact your kids.
- They didn’t ask for it and they don’t deserve to be in the middle of two people that refuse to take responsibility for their own actions.
A great book to get to read or listen to together is Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson, Ph.D.
Here is an international directory of certified Emotionally Focused Therapists if you are interested in working privately with someone.
My course, the Love After Kids Relationship Toolkit, is also an option if you want to try something on your own or with your partner. I’m offering the first lesson for free so that you can get a better idea if it is a good fit for you.
It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something. It won’t get better by ignoring it. Acknowledging and accepting that is a huge first step.
Finally, please remember, where there’s love, there’s hope.
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, helping couples with their relationships since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couple’s therapist with a web-based private practice and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Thrive Global. David lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, two kids and toy poodle.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on March 16, 2017.
Originally published at medium.com