I am very worried about our children. They witness my husband and me fighting regularly. While we try not to argue in front of them, I know they can hear us and often ask us to stop. They have even seen an incident or two where we screamed at each other.
I’m glad you wrote on this topic. There’s an epidemic of conflict in the home and it most definitely impacts children. As much as couples try to manage their marital tension, their children are like sponges absorbing what’s happening. While they watch in alarm or huddle in their rooms, staying out of the line of fire, they’re recording everything that takes place.
Scripture is not silent on the matter of marital conflict. The apostle James warns us about our selfish desires: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). These power struggles may cause your children to respond in one or even all four of the following ways:
1. Fixing the problem. Many children rush in to rescue one or both parents. They hate to see their parents fighting and will beg their parents to stop. They may, in their childlike ways, even offer suggestions as to how Mommy and Daddy can stop fighting;
2. Feeling the problem. It’s not unusual for children to develop psychosomatic symptoms of the emotional tension at home, such as headaches, stomach distress, and other physical problems;
3. Fleeing from the problem. They may hide under the covers in their bedroom, find a relatively calm place under the stairwell, or go outside, away from the tension. They await the end of the conflict;
4. Freezing from the problem. They may dissociate from the conflict. This particularly troubling phenomenon will cause significant problems as they grow, because they’ve learned to automatically “disappear” when tensions arise and their earlier trauma is triggered.
What you can do to help your children deal with their feelings regarding the conflict in your marriage?
Empathize with your children. In the midst of the battle, when emotions are roused, you may forget your children are absorbing the tension in your home. When appropriate, talk to your children about what they are feeling, and if necessary, seek professional help to discern the impact it’s having on them.
Never involve your children in your conflict. This is obvious. Children are easily influenced and easily harmed. They are vulnerable and need your protection. Children should not only not hear, see, or feel heated conflict, but should never be included in any way in the skirmish. You must protect your children at all costs.
Set inviolable boundaries on fighting. Couples are likely to have conflict now and again. However, you and your husband need to effectively manage your conflicts. You both need to agree you’ll never fight in front of your children. You need to agree to take time outs when necessary. Agree never to involve your children in your struggles. Agree to talk to the children to determine if they are being harmed by your conflict and get them help if they are internalizing any of your pain.
Manage the shift. Healthy couples know how to manage “raw spots.” They see conflict coming and notice when they’re being triggered by something their mate has said. Keep issues current and work to effectively resolve them. When you or your husband notice the shift from healthy conversation to conflict, make decisions accordingly.
Set boundaries. Couples must know about boundaries and live with them. They know not to call their mate names, say derogatory things to them, and they’ve mastered the art of knowing what to say, and when and how how to say it. These are called internal and external boundaries. While no one is perfect, you and your husband can master these skills.
Share appropriate information with your children. No one is perfect, and there may be times when you will need to sit down with your children and explain, in their language, what has happened. Offer only limited information; you want to set their minds at ease, assuring them that Mommy and Daddy’s conflicts have nothing to do with them. There may even be times when you will need to apologize to your children for your actions and words.
Show stability and unity. Do everything in your power to offer your children these qualities so they can focus on being playful, carefree, and inquisitive. Reassure them that the tension they experienced was temporary and that you still love one another.
In summary, children are the innocent victims of parents who cannot manage their emotions. Children often get caught in the crossfire and must be protected at all costs. Vow today, with your mate, that you will protect your children and keep a healthy conversation going with them about their emotional wellbeing.