Turning The Tables On Conflict – What Parents Need To Know

To a child, a stable home life and two loving parents mean everything.  More than any other influence, this foundation can almost guarantee that a child will grow up feeling safe and secure, even when faced with hardship or adversity.

Every family is unique and special — some are led by single parents, others are extended families with several generations living under one roof.  But, sadly, nuclear families with two parents who maintain a strong marriage are becoming less common.

One thing is certain, however; even if a child grows up in a traditional two-parent household, when there is marital conflict, it can do far more damage to the children than most people are aware of.

Greater Good reported:

“Children are like emotional Geiger counters,” says E. Mark Cummings, psychologist at Notre Dame University, who, along with colleagues, has published hundreds of papers over twenty years on the subject. Kids pay close attention to their parents’ emotions for information about how safe they are in the family, Cummings says. When parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.

Let’s face it – marriage can be tough.  It requires constant work, open communication, and mutual respect.  And when conflict arises, as it almost certainly will from time to time, parents must be sure they are addressing it in a way that is not harmful for the children.

When parents are hostile toward one another, children pick up on it and learn negative ways to deal with conflict.  When faced with conflict in their own relationships, a child will use the techniques that are modeled to them, most typically with their parents as the main influence.

Children raised in environments with continual “destructive conflict” will have trouble forming relationships of their own, even at a young age.  They may become angry or withdrawn, aggressive or self-destructive because they do not have the tools to properly manage conflict.

In a traditional nuclear family, a couple may begin to struggle in their marriage and are not able to work their way towards a solution.  And sometimes, couples give up trying to work on things and stay together “for the sake of the kids.”  But studies have shown that this environment of constant destructive conflict has a more negative impact on a child than even divorce.

Children pick up on everything, whether we think so or not. They can read every emotion and are very sensitive to hostility and anger, especially when exhibited by those they trust the most — their parents.

Greater Good continued:

Kids are sophisticated conflict analysts; the degree to which they detect emotion is much more refined than parents might guess. “When parents go behind closed doors and come out acting like they worked it out, the kids can detect that,” says Cummings. They’ll see you’re pretending. And pretending is actually worse in some ways.”

“When kids witness a fight and see the parents resolving it, they’re actually happier than they were before they saw it,” says Cummings. “It reassures kids that parents can work things through. We know this by the feelings they show, what they say, and their behavior.”

Destructive conflict is just that – it encourages negativity and destruction of relationships.  But when parents practice “constructive conflict,” where a problem is addressed and resolved in a positive and appropriate manner, the benefits to the children are tremendous.

Greater Good reported:

Constructive conflict is associated with better outcomes over time. Children feel more emotionally secure, their internal resources are freed up for positive developmental growth, and their own pro-social behavior toward others is enhanced. In fact, many child behavior problems can be solved not by focusing on the child, or even the parent-child relationship, but simply by improving the quality of the parents’ relationship alone, which strengthens children’s emotional security.

Even if parents don’t completely resolve the problem but find a partial solution, kids will do fine. In fact, their distress seems to go down in proportion to their parents’ ability to resolve things constructively.  “Compromise is best, but we have a whole lot of studies that show that kids benefit from any progress toward resolution,” says Cummings.

Many therapists point to studies that children can even benefit from conflict in the home, as long as it is managed well by the parents.  People fight – anger, frustration, and stress cause us all to experience conflict at one time or another.  Children will eventually experience a conflict that they have to work through, and by modeling proper conflict resolution, parents are teaching their children a valuable life skill.

Parents must model real-life solutions to problems, allowing children to see how respect, communication, and compromise strengthen all relationships.

Open communication and emotional maturity are some of these behaviors.The relationship between their parents is one that will determine the strengths or weaknesses of their kids’ own relationships – and how they handle conflict – throughout their lifetimes.

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Greater Good concluded with some constructive conflict tips that are good for parents to practice and model for their children:

Anything that needs to be said can be said with kindness. Disapproval, disappointment, exasperation—all can be handled better with kindness

Constructive criticism only works when your partner can do something about what happened. If the deadline for soccer signup was already missed, remedy the current situation as best as possible and talk about how to do it better next time. Blaming won’t fix anything that’s already happened

Remember that you’re on the same team. Deal with issues by laying all the cards on the table and looking at them together to solve a dilemma rather than digging in on opposing sides. Then problem-solve with one another.

Give your partner the benefit of the doubt: Assume the best intentions and help yourself remember that you love each other by adding an endearment

Lead with empathy: Open the dialog by first letting the other person know that you see them, you get them, and you can put yourself in their shoes.

Do you know someone whose children have been affected by “destructive” marital conflict?  What are some of the ways you model “constructive” conflict strategies in your marriage?  Leave us your thoughts in the comments.

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