By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
It takes both a mother and a father to make a child and ideally these two should work together in harmony to raise the child to be healthy. However as we know, conflict often arises between parents and everyone knows that it's seriously affects children. The good news is, that even if there is conflict between parents who are together, or even there is a divorce or a custody battle, you can take steps to minimize the damage done to your child's emotional health, you can support him or her and make up for much of what has been lost.
The question is how?
To answer this we need to first understand the parents’ fighting effect on a child.
To a child his parents are absolutely everything. He is completely dependent on them emotionally and physically. The loss of either parents’ love, attention or approval can result in a severe trauma unless it is carefully managed.
For example, a child naturally loves both his parents more than life itself, but when parents have negative feelings towards each other a child is put into an irreconcilable quandary. The two people who he loves more than anything seem to hate each other more than anything. The two people who, for the child's own emotional survival, he must perceive as all good and all kind, are hurting each other. How can she love me if she hates the other person I love so much? How can I trust them to be good to me if they're so mean to each other? And they are each hurting the other person I love! In addition, the child thinks, if they once loved each other but then stopped, maybe they will someday stop loving me too?
These and other fears all swirl in a child's head during parental conflict.
Even more alarming is the fact that very often when parents fight the children blame themselves. They think, “It's because I'm bad that mommy and daddy don't get along. If I was a good boy they would get along.” I have had children report to me in therapy that they think this way when their parents argue! You see a child desperately needs to idealize his parents for his own emotional survival. He needs to think of his parents are all good and all kind, that they're taking care of him. It is much safer for a child to blame himself and consider himself bad than to contemplate that his parents are behaving inappropriately. Even when parents live together and generally get along if the children do witness even occasional conflict they will have all these thoughts. Children do not have the maturity and presence of mind to think, “Mommy and daddy are fighting right now but surely tomorrow they will have made up and everything will be fine.” In the moment, they truly fear the worst and are severely traumatized by any marital conflict.
However even when conflict in inevitable, we can do much to shield children from it's damaging affects. How?
The first answer is obviously to prevent them from witnessing conflict is much is possible. I can't emphasize this point enough! I know that sometimes passions flare up and it is difficult to prevent arguing in front of the children, and in addition sometimes it is your partner who initiates the conflict, but I recommend you firmly decide in your mind that you will not answer back or in any way prolong arguments in front of the kids! It is better to tolerate insults from your partner quietly that to harm your child’s emotional health. After a time, your partner will see you mean business and will keep the arguments in private. It’s amazing how beneficial this practice will be for the emotional health of your children!
Talk about it openly!
If they do witness conflict however, the trick is to talk about it openly with them. The worst thing to do is to say nothing. You need to reassure them of your love and that their needs will be met. You need to dispel those fears mentioned above that they may be feeling while witnessing in argument. Reassure them, “Mommy and daddy are just having a disagreement. We still love each other, and later on we're going to make up and everything will be fine. Mommies and daddies argue sometimes, but even though we argue we still love you more than anything. Our argument has nothing to do with you. You didn't do anything wrong. It's not your fault.” In addition, you need to get them to express how they feel when mommy and daddy argue. You need to reflect and validate those feelings: “Oh, you get so scared and mommy and daddy argue. It makes you unhappy.” Children will often be very angry at their parents for the conflict and making them unhappy. We need to allow them to express they're angry feelings so they become consciously aware of them so they can process and resolve them.
Never speak bad about the other parent!
If you are separated from your former partner, I know you may be being mistreated and have hard feelings towards him or her. But it is critical to remember that you must avoid giving the children the impression that you dislike or are angry with the other parent. You must let them have the impression, even if it's not true, that you respect and think highly of the other parent. Remember, that parent who you have such hard feelings for is everything to your beloved child! Letting the child know you hate or don’t respect their other parent will unfortunately be very harmful! If the child expresses happiness regarding the other parent you must celebrate and respect that happiness with him. Go out of your way to speak highly of the other parent in front of the child, “Your Daddy is a great Daddy. He loves you very much. I’m so glad he’s going to take you to the Zoo.”
Be generous and nice!
Above all you must be extremely gentle, kind, patient, tolerant and generous with children who are going through conflict between their parents. It is no time for punishment, harsh discipline, reprimands, scoldings or timeouts! Don’t fear that your child will be spoiled by generosity because the opposite is true, it’s lack of emotional generosity the makes kids act spoiled!
Happiness is not a frivolous desire, it is an absolutely fundamental need that each child must have fulfilled to grow up healthily! Because of the conflict, the children will have a very much lowered happiness, level which can be the source of many emotional and behavioral problems. Therefore, the solution is to raise their happiness level as much as possible. Always strive despite the conflict to be a source of pleasure to your child and never source of stress. Always try to put on a happy face for your child!
Furthermore, if the parents are separated, the child may be seeing one or both parents much less often. This feels like a partial abandonment on top of a separation Therefore, it pays to make up for that loss by being extra kind and gentle. In addition, it pays for both parents to live near each other if possible to maximize visitation.
Pick up and drop off times can be very difficult for such children as the constant change in their basic environment is very stressful. Therefore, have patience will their difficulties and try to tolerate all their misbehaviors with a smile, as it is not their fault, it is a result of the stress of the separation.
The magic of Play Therapy!
Play therapy is very helpful at getting kids to recover from conflict between their parents. Such children desperately want their parents to be together, to love each other and to treat each other kindly. But the fact that the opposite is happening, represents the ultimate in the lack of control over their own lives and destinies. The single most important thing in their lives that they need to control, their relationship with their parents, is completely out of their control. Therefore, the medicine in the playroom is to put them back in control. During Play Therapy, I don't tell them what to do, the child completely controls the session and I follow him. honoring all of his decisions. He or she is exhilarated and empowered to know that he completely controls an entire institution, his weekly play therapy session. In the playroom, I call careful attention to all the things the child chooses to do, causing him to himself conclude that his needs, desires, feelings, decisions and accomplishments are truly important and deserve to be respected and honored by others. I treat him with so much respect that he learns to respect himself. All this makes him feel so good about himself that to a large extent it compensates for his lowered happiness level and lack of control caused by the parental conflict. In addition, in the playroom I help the child to express and gain conscious awareness of all his stormy feelings generated by the conflict. Once he is aware of how he feels, he can manipulate and resolve his feelings and they will no longer cause him emotional health problems. I have seen Play Therapy help many such children!
Seek Parenting Advice
During marital conflict the parents’ needs are not being met properly and they're also suffering. This makes it much more difficult to be in a position to fulfill the children's needs. At the same time the children are suffering from the conflict and become much more needy. This combination of pressures can drive children to act out in all forms of misbehavior and emotional problems, causing conflict between parent and child and discipline problems. Therefore, it is very wise at such times to seek parenting advice on how to discipline such children properly, and in a way that will take into consideration everything that’s going on and their emotional needs. Therefore, together with Play Therapy, if you desire, I also offer Parenting Counseling.
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If you would like to learn more about parents’ fighting effect on a child,
and would like guidance or treatment from a child therapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a complementary 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!