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How to fight like a grown up

Text: Joanna Kleovoulou. Article from the June 2014 issue of Living and Loving Magazine.

Parents who always fight and bicker might believe it won’t affect their young kids. Think again, says clinical psychologist Joanna Kleovoulou.

Parents who always fight and bicker might believe it won't affect their young kids. As parents, we often lose sight of the joy our baby brings. Sleep deprivation, feeding, teething, ailments, coupled with the biggest responsibility – taking care of another human being – takes its toll on new parents. Often, this overshadows the first giggle, first steps, first words and the connection between you and your spouse.

One of my questions in my initial parent consultations are: “What was the nature of your relationship during pregnancy and in the early months of your baby’s life?” Parents often reply, “We fought a lot, but our child was so little he won’t remember,” or “Our baby didn’t understand what was going on”. However, parents are often mistaken about the impact intense fighting has on their baby.

Conflicting messages

Parental conflict sends your toddler messages about relationships, love and about his sense of self in the world. In your toddler’s eyes, negative comments about your spouse become a direct judgment of your child. Limiting your child’s exposure to heated fighting is vital to his self-esteem and psychological wellbeing.

Most parents want secure, happy, confident and well-adjusted children. Regular fighting or outbursts can break all that down and have the opposite effect. The American Psychological Association states that children who are consistently exposed to intense parental fighting are subjected to emotional, behavioural and physiological distress. This includes sleeping problems, changes in appetite, stomach aches, constipation or diarrhoea and a suppressed immune system. Emotionally, they suffer from anxiety, moodiness, temper tantrums, clumsiness and lethargy. They also tend to cry, whine, show regressive behaviour and suffer from separation anxiety.

When you’re in the boxing ring with your spouse all the time, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

A study conducted by the University of Rochester revealed that children who experienced distress due to parental conflict, showed higher levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. Another study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology showed that children who were subjected to ongoing parental fighting had increased sweat gland activity, breathing and heart rates. The study also indicated that these children’s stress levels returned to normal when their parents stopped fighting.

Early interaction

How we respond to our child in the first few years determines his life disposition of trust or mistrust. Infants don’t have emotional boundaries and can’t separate who owns the emotions or whom the emotions are directed at. An infant is unable to remove himself from you physically and psychologically. Therefore, he takes your feelings as a direct reflection of who he is and in establishing his identity. These negative emotions can also have a long-lasting impact on your child. Your toddler can internalise the confusion, chaos and anxiety, which can leave neurological imprints in the brain. Your child even internalises your body language, tone of voice and what you say – even more so when he’s little.

Undeniably, disagreements are a normal part of any relationship dynamic. It’s unrealistic to believe that a relationship will always remain harmonious, or that you always need to conceal your disagreements from your kids.

The trick is to show effective ways of solving conflict. Frequent disagreements could chip away at the connection between you and your loved one, creating more emotional and physical distance.

Teaching life skills

At times, it’s better to be honest with your child about spousal tension, as your little one can pick up on emotionally charged energy – particularly anger. This shows your child that what he’s experiencing is valid and not squashed by the notion that everything’s ‘fine’.

You can use this as an opportunity to demonstrate how to resolve issues. Show your child that a person can hold two opposing feelings at the same time, such as love and anger towards another person. More importantly, show your child that a person can make the effort to resolve or reach middle ground in a respectful manner. This is an important way to teach your children about life skills and relationships.

Always remember that there’s a difference between everyday disagreements and emotionally charged fighting. Screaming, attacking, swearing and disrespectful interaction with no resolution can leave family members feeling berated, angry or scared. Children find it distressing to live in such an environment, as they don’t understand why their parents are fighting. They end  up absorbing the negative energy, as they can’t remove themselves from the situation, or verbalise their distress. Also, parents are less emotionally available, as they tend to focus more on the fight.

Although children show emotional, behavioural and biological responses to parental conflict, arguing can be positive when it’s directed at resolving an issue. Couples who work out differences and are able to compromise tend to be good role-models.

How to deal with conflict

• Speak with your spouse in a positive manner – each parent helps sculpt your child’s self-image.

• Minimising fights between you and your spouse reduces parent-child conflict.

• Use uncharged language.

• Choose your battles wisely – recognise the control you have over your situation, while accepting what you can’t control.

• Compliment each other’s efforts more than expressing dissatisfaction. This sends the message that you respect and appreciate each other.

• Be sensitive to each other’s daily challenges by checking in with each other. 

• Don’t accuse – rather focus on the problem.

• Create a positive emotional environment for your toddler.

• Stick to household rules and routines. This helps maintain a sense of stability and consistency.

• Remember to breathe. 

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