Although a certain amount of conflict between spouses is to be expected, there are ways to fight and argue in front of your kids that are acceptable but there are ways that simply foster fear and anxiety.
If you don’t know how to fight fair it is best to spare your children. Also, please don’t expose them to adult issues. They are too young to understand and it just confuses them, worries them, and creates fear in them. Children are too young to hear about your financial problems, your work problems, or hear you bad mouth a neighbour, friends or family member.
When you know how to fight fair, and of course make up afterwards, you actually teach your children that it is normal to have disagreements with someone and you still love them regardless. It teaches them to stand up for themselves, to be assertive and not fear being rejected or unloved. It feels safe.
However, when parents resort to screaming, verbal abuse, insults, throwing things, threats, leave for very long stretches of time (e.g. 8 hours to days) and so on, children get scared. They worry that their parents will get hurt, they worry that they will leave and not come back, and they fear for their safety. Whether you know this or not, children feel the urge to protect their parents and they worry for them.
We are our children’s first teachers. We teach our children how to cope with conflict because they observe us and simply imitate us. They will carefully mirror back to us what we will have taught them, and then we will witness how they argue with us, their friends and other adults. Remember that. What children witness in their homes they repeat within the family system or in the school yard.
This is how bullies are made: redirected aggression. They can’t hurt their parents so they take it out on their siblings or their peers, or even the family pet. Hurt people, hurt people.
If you can’t keep your act together the least you can do is to not punish or scold your children when they freak out, because they are simply repeating what you, the adults, are doing. So when your child exhibits behaviour that you deem unacceptable, the first thing to do is to look in the mirror and first ask yourself if you exhibit this behaviour in any way. If you do, YOU need to change your behaviour first and your child will follow.
YOU need to own up to the dysfunctional coping style, apologize and reassure your children that you are working at bettering yourself. YOU need to take control of your anger and learn healthy ways to fight. YOU need to keep these destructive scenes away from your children.
So if your children’s angry outbursts upset and annoy you, as I said, first look in the mirror and see where in your life do you act in the same way. Your child most likely learned it from you. Your corrective lectures or punishments are hypocrisy if you exhibit the same unacceptable behaviour as your child. How can you teach a child not to hit, not to scream or throw things, be respectful if you yourself don’t put it into practice. It will just confuse them, you lose face, you lose their respect. Not to mention that you are teaching them a double standard: that people can hurt them but they can’t hurt people.
Children exposed to high conflict parents become bullies themselves or victims of bullies, they develop anxiety, depression , poor self esteem, poor coping skills, they take it out on their siblings, it teaches siblings to bully and mistreat each other, it teaches lack of respect. it makes them exhibits symptoms akin to ADHD (can’t concentrate, fidget, oppositional etc), it makes them fearful, some want to run away from home, they resent their parents, and on and on. These are but a few of the consequences of witnessed parental conflict that I have seen in my office over the years…
Furthermore, if you mistreat your spouse, it also teaches your children how to treat their boyfriends and girlfriends later on in adolescence and adulthood. You set the stage for how their relationships are likely to unfold What you model as a couple is most likely what your children will seek out with a partner. Regardless of the gender of the child. It is what we call intergenerational transmission of patterns. So if you don’t want your child to grow up to become an abuser or a victim, don’t expose them to these models.
Finally, if you cannot do it on your own, please seek counselling… and if it is passed the point of no return, for the sake of your children… end the relationship. Divorce is not traumatic to children, but high conflict is.
Lecturing them about how to behave during a conflict is a waste of time. Children learn by what they see not what they hear. You need to trust me on that one. Change your behaviour and you will see your child’s behaviour change as well.