Last month we highlighted how marriage can make you grumpy (click here to read the article). This month we are focusing on how children are affected by marital tension. No matter what age, children are impacted by the climate that is created when parents experience marital tension.
It's important to recognize what you can do to ease the pain and, more importantly, help your children learn to cope. It's even possible that your kids can learn some life lessons and be better for it. It's up to you.
In Part 1 we reviewed how physical ailments can be the result of marital discord. If your own physical and mental discomfort isn't bad enough, it is also important to recognize what marital stress does to your children. Charmaine Solomon, LPC sees children and adults in our practice. She often sees the effects of marital problems both from a couple's point of view and from a child's view. When there is marital tension, the effects can be seen with children in the following ways:
Poor academic progress
Difficulty with peer relationships
Becoming isolated in the family
Behavior problems in school that force parents to come together
Increased risk for substance and alcohol abuse
Charmaine points out that, through the stress on the family, sometimes a child becomes the identified patient through their behaviors such as acting out at home and school. Their behaviors may then distract the parents from dealing with their marital issues as they attempt to solve the child's problems. What we see frequently in our clinical practice is that in reality the child's behavior is a symptom of the problems in the parents' relationship and not related to issues about the child who originally was brought for therapy.
We know that children who experience and witness parental tension and conflict can, in response, suffer from anxiety and stress. Children do not have the maturity or the internal mechanisms to cope with the type of tension and stress they may see from their parents. A child whose parents fight frequently may struggle to communicate their feelings verbally, and as a result they may develop acting out behaviors at home and at school. When parental issues are addressed and resolved, the tension will more than likely decrease and the child's misbehaviors have a tendency to stop.
Here are some Smart Moves that keep children in mind when there is marital tension:
Don't use your kids to manage your marital stress. Kids become clingy when parents are grumpy toward each other; this is definitely a sign that they are feeling the tension and the anxiety.
It's okay to show conflict in front of your kids but also let them see how you are able to maintain a level of satisfaction in your marriage despite your differences. As family therapists, it makes us very nervous when a couple says, "My parents never fought in front of us." That helps explain why some couples are somewhat intolerant of their own marital conflict. They never learned how to have conflict and still maintain a healthy relationship. It's important to role model for children that you can still care about someone even when there is conflict present.
Keep the details private rather than secret. You "parentify" kids when you pollute them with details of your marital discourse. They shouldn't know the details that are private. It is okay to say, "I'm mad with your dad right now and that is okay. I know I will get over it." That is important role modeling. Don't try to fake that everything is okay because that tends to make kids nervous. Kids know when something is up and benefit from the reassurance that it is only temporary. That helps them learn to deal with their own anger. They learn that anger doesn't have to be terminal.
We all want to raise healthy, well adjusted children. Think about it; we are raising the parents of our future grandchildren. This can be a scary thought or it can be an opportunity. In a marriage it is important to do what you can to do it right. Our kids are counting on us to teach them the important skills of conflict and problem solving. It's important to not get caught up in only seeing how marital conflict affects you. Pay attention to how it is affecting your children and work hard to ensure that your marriage is not the reason they are feeling grumpy.