Parenting young children — 15 January 2013
Curb your marital conflicts for the sake of your children

Most couples disagree and many engage in arguments. Those who escalate their disagreements to fights and do so in front of their children are inadvertently harming their youngsters.

Children understand that parents do not always see eye to eye about some subjects. They can accept and even benefit from witnessing animated discussions, respectful arguments and sound compromises. Yet, when the exchanges become aggressive, offensive, dismissive or disrespectful, children become frightened and anxious.

Most youngsters view themselves as part Mom and part Dad. Negative parental exchanges may diminish the children’s view of both sides of themselves. In addition, most youngsters fear that parental fights may terminate the marriage and leave them stranded. Though they may not voice these concerns, they are deeply impacted by fears about the potential dissolution of the family.

Children who witness frequent high conflict between their parents may become distracted at school, depressed, anxious or brooding. It affects their capacity to concentrate on learning when the stability of their existence is in doubt.

Researcher Susan Campbell found that “Negative, inconsistent parental behavior and high levels of family adversity are associated with the emergence of problems in early childhood and predict their persistence in school age.”

Paul Amato, who analyzed 92 studies about the effect of divorce on children, reported that the most consistent negative outcome for children came from witnessing parental conflicts.

E. Mark Cummins reported the lasting effects of parental conflict. Children of parents who reported high conflict while their youngsters were in kindergarten were more insecure, suffered from depression, anxiety and behavioral issues by seventh grade. He summarized, “Conflict affects children by affecting their sense of emotional security and if they don’t have that they feel distressed emotionally and are more prone to aggression and hostility.”

For parents, exercising self-containment when they feel misunderstood, threatened and unsafe is daunting. The urgency of restoring the mate’s respect is so compelling that it may overshadow all other considerations.

Most parents know that it is advisable to discuss controversial subjects in private, contain frustrations and stay mature and logical when their emotions flood them. Yet, these routes are not easily accessible to adults when their esteem is threatened.

Parents can manage their differences, be heard and validated during peaks of feeling indignant. By using the following tool, parents can prevent the damage that may be caused to their youngsters during escalating conflicts.

Since most parental behaviors are remembered, recorded and imbedded in their children’s minds as life and relationship lessons, parents may want to imagine themselves being videoed in every interaction in the presence of their children. When we view ourselves as being filmed, we are better able to preserve our overseeing consciousness that may keep our emotions at bay and our sensibilities intact.


  • Remember that your conflicts leave an indelible mark on your children.
  • For the sake of the children, remember to be at your best during conflicts by imagining yourself being videoed.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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