I heard a story recently from a friend of mine who grew up with a father who was a drunk. As a kid, he was constantly on alert, always trying to read what kind of mood his father was in when he would arrive home from work. His dad and mom fought frequently — often in front of the kids — and sometimes, their fights would become physical. My friend can still describe the look on his father's face before he would explode.
How does fighting impact children? In a recent interview with ABC’s Good Morning America, Dr. Gordon Harold, a researcher at Cardiff University in Cardiff, Wales said,
“When children are threatened at an emotional level, they're showing increases in negative symptoms such as depression, anxiety, aggression, and hostility."
Other responses to tension at home can include a child becoming withdrawn or quiet, behaviors often overlooked. Conversely, a child may become aggressive and difficult, even acting out while parents argue as a way of distracting one parent from the other.
Tamar D. Afifi, a professor of communication at University of California at Santa Barbara, has also done research around family dynamics, divorce, and the impact fighting has on children, which she has shared on Tedx Talks.
Afifi examines how kids manage stress by testing for stress hormones. What she has found is that for kids who come from families where parents have good communication skills and a low amount of conflict, when tensions do arise, it doesn’t stress kids out as much. Their bodies are able to calm down fairly quickly.
It also doesn’t matter whether parents are married or divorced. Kids may get anxious, but that anxiety quickly dissipates.
Dealing with anxiety is much more difficult for kids with parents who are often in conflict, have poor communication skills, and choose to stay married. Afifi finds the bodies of those children don’t calm down as easily. More specifically, Harold’s research indicates that verbally or physically aggressive fights, parents who give the “silent treatment,” and arguments that involve the child are the worst for children.
It’s particularly difficult when parents put the child in the middle of their disputes. Even something as simple as one parent asking the child to tell the other parent about a doctor’s appointment can create conflict and force a child to form an alliance with one parent or the other.
Here are a few ways to improve communication:
• When fighting, show resolution. Help children see that compromise, compassion, and humor can be ways to resolve a conflict.
• Never put your child in the middle of a fight or make them choose one parent over the other.
• Create rules about how you will communicate with one another.
• If divorced, work together to co-parent.
Remember, children are not as resilient as we like to think. The behavior you model can have a lasting impact on your child — in a positive or negative way — throughout his life.