Compassion Matters

How to save a life

How Your Relationship Impacts Your Kids

How do negative interactions between parents hurt children?

When a study group recently asked kids to answer how they could tell if a couple was married, one answer that kept arising was “If they are arguing, then they are probably married.” This response might seem comical if it were coming from an adult, but coming from a child whose intentions are far from getting a laugh, the answer is much more unsettling and much more worthy of our consideration.

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. When it comes to the relationship between their parents, no irritated eye-roll goes unseen, and no whispered criticism goes unheard. No matter how hard we may try to conceal problems, children are sensitive to the tensions between their parents and are directly influenced by the way their parents interact.

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Many of us can remember occasions from our own childhoods when our parents were so involved in their emotional states that they acted as if we were invisible. Now as parents, there are times when we are so immersed in an interaction with our partner or spouse, that we forget that we have an audience in our children. We may try to fool ourselves that they are distracted playing on the floor, but little is likely to slip past them when it comes to dynamics between their parents. Whether it’s a parent who yells a lot or one who acts sullen and angry, these patterns directly impact our kids when they are young, and they often go on to re-enact them in their own relationships when they reach adulthood.  

When children sense something is wrong between their parents, it often increases their anxiety and perpetual worry. They may start doing things to cut off their emotions. If they are afraid, sad or insecure, they may try to numb these emotions with such behaviors as overeating or excessively playing video games. If they don’t feel they can talk to their parents, or their anger or hurt involves their parents, children may start showing their feelings indirectly: throwing tantrums over toys, getting unusually clingy toward a parent, losing interest in school, getting in fights with other kids.

No matter what a child’s release is for his or her emotions, one feeling that tends to impact any child whose parents are having problems is guilt. When parents aren’t getting along, kids very often take the blame upon themselves and feel the pressure to make things okay within their family. They often have thoughts like, “If I had been better, this wouldn’t have happened.” Sadly, these children are often emotionally abandoned at a time when they especially need help making sense of their feelings of turmoil.

Though children are less mature than their parents, they often feel they must take care of the emotional needs of everyone; a pressure that can leave a child feeling depressed and stressed. Sometimes parents will even call on a child to take sides in a parental dispute, thus dragging the child into the middle of the conflict and forcing him or her to participate. Other times, however, parents’ demands on their children are more subtle, and these parents are unaware of the strains they are placing on their children simply by feeling bad in themselves or in their relationship. Parents who don’t meet each other’s emotional needs frequently turn to their kids for support. Though, often unconscious, this places an unnatural and destructive burden on a child.

When parents feel happy and fulfilled in themselves and in their adult relationships, they are less likely to pull on their kids. When parents’ own emotional needs are met, they offer their children a sense of stability and security from which to experience the world. A parent’s happiness allows children to feel happy and to trust that parent to meet their emotional needs.

To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on parenting visit PsychAlive.org - Alive to Parenting

Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the Nov. 2 CE webinar "Helping Parents to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children"

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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