Eight-year-old Camille plays quietly outside in the backyard of her large suburban home. She bends over her plastic stove, intent on making ‘cakes’ from her large supply of sand. Camille lifts her head to listen. Yes, she can still hear the sounds of her parents, yelling at each other from inside the house. Frowning, she works even more intently, shaping and icing her cakes, drawing elaborate designs on the tops. She waits for the arguing to end. Camille is not unlike most children in American families today. Marital conflict is a very common occurrence in families and is particularly prevalent during the child-rearing years. Parenting adds a whole new level of complexity to the challenges of marriage. Who changes the diapers, disciplines the children or takes off work to care for a sick child? As many couples know, parenting can present many new opportunities for conflict, and there are both constructive and non-constructive ways of handling these differences.
Does marital conflict always hurt? Decades of research have found that exposure to extreme marital conflict can lead to behavioral and psychological problems in children. But is this exposure always detrimental? According to Mark Cummings, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and a leading researcher on marital conflict, witnessing one’s parents disagree can sometimes help children to cope more effectively with life’s challenges. Dr. Cummings found that children privy to constructive disagreements have fewer behavioral problems and are less aggressive and more emotionally stable than children without this experience. What parents fight about also seems to have an effect on their kids. Dr. Cummings says, “Interestingly, parents’ conflicts about work and social topics tend to be constructive and to be associated with children’s positive reactions to conflicts.” Does this mean that when inevitable disagreements do arise, couples can fight with abandon regardless of whether their children are present? Some types of conflict are clearly harmful. Arguments that are verbally intense (e.g., name calling and screaming) and that involve physical aggression are particularly distressing to children. When parents fight about their children, for example over child-rearing issues or academic or behavioral problems, children are more likely to react with shame and self-blame. Also, conflicts left unresolved are associated with more anger and anxiety in children. For example, when children observe their parents disagree but never see them makeup or negotiate a solution, they can remain distressed and worried. One of the most harmful forms of conflict can be arguments that threaten a child’s sense that their parents are still a stable and secure unit. Arguments where a parent threatens to leave his or her spouse are particularly frightening to children and, in fact, are as distressing to a child as witnessing parents fight with each other physically.
How do couples really behave? As a counselor and child development researcher, I have worked with families from a variety of backgrounds. I have found that parents differ widely in their understanding of how children perceive and react to marital conflict. As part of my research, I interviewed parents on their conflict beliefs and found three general viewpoints on children’s exposure to marital discord: The protectors believe that children’s exposure to marital discord of any kind is harmful. These parents seem to hold the view that conflict is always negative and children can only be harmed by seeing their parents fight. One father, for example, tried to protect his son from all conflict because of his own negative experiences with it as a child. “Generally, we resolve our problems in private,” this father explains. Sometimes he’ll ask, ‘What’s the matter? Are you mad at Mom; are you mad at Dad?’ And generally, even if we are, I’ll say, ‘No, don’t worry about it.’ I don’t want him to grow up thinking that it’s good to fight. I definitely wouldn’t want him to see what I saw when I grew up.” On the other end of the spectrum are the exposers. These parents acknowledge that their children have been present for some of their more spectacular arguments. However, these couples do not believe that their children are traumatized in any significant way by witnessing these quarrels. In fact, one mother in this group believed that her daughter’s exposure to intense family conflict is positive. “Our day-to-day arguments would be the really major ones in some families,” she says. “We shout and use a very good amount of bad language, and then we get it out of our system. I think if you’re brought up in my family, and you get to work and your first boss shouts at you, you’re a lot better prepared.” The majority of parents interviewed endorse conditional beliefs about marital conflict. These parents generally feel that occasional exposure to small conflicts doesn’t harm children and can even be a positive thing. For example, one mother believed that it was important for her son and her daughter to see some arguments between parents. “They do see that we have disagreements. If you didn’t care about each other, didn’t fight with each other, then there’s no spark in the relationship. They have to know that’s part of a normal relationship.” Another mother felt that witnessing some marital conflict was not too detrimental for her daughters. She says: “I know it disturbs them a little bit, but I don’t think a whole lot because it doesn’t happen very often, and usually what happens is the Mommy and Daddy are more close afterwards.”
Child-friendly conflict It is one thing to agree that children’s exposure should be limited to occasional, minor marital conflicts that are quickly resolved. It is another thing to actually remember this advice ‘in the heat of the moment’. So what can parents do to increase their chances of fighting in more ‘child-friendly’ ways? According to Dr. Cummings, it is important not to ‘kitchen sink’ — that is, to store up resentments from past conflicts. For example, I interviewed one mother who admitted that when stressed, blow-ups are more likely. She says, “I think I can become overwhelmed by the number of tasks that need to happen much sooner than my husband can, so I think sometimes I start keeping score of who’s doing what. When I start feeling really stressed out, we have big arguments. I ignore it at first, which doesn’t really work and we just have like a major blowout.” As this parent illustrates, it is important for couples to be aware of how they are feeling internally. Those telltale signals that we can ignore — the tight feeling in the chest, the mounting irritation — are all signals to step back and take a ‘time out’. Couples who focus on compromising, problem solving, and on remaining emotionally positive are more likely to have conflicts that do not escalate out of control. In the long run, putting in the time and effort to argue constructively will benefit children now and in the future.