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Conflicts are an inherent part of our lives, so it’s normal to have arguments within the family or between partners. If conflict is handled correctly, relationships can improve. But much more often they deteriorate: quarrels become destructive not only for both sides of the conflict but also for the children who may be watching. It’s impossible to completely rule out harm to a child during parental quarrels, but it can be minimized.

Why It’s Important to Protect Your Child From Fighting

People have a deep need to empathically read other people’s states. This is especially pronounced in children. To feel secure, a child needs a close connection with his parents. He feels this connection empathically, tuning in not only to the father or mother but also to what is going on between them.

Many years of research conducted in different countries, based on long-term observations of the behavior of children in the family while growing up, show that as early as six months of age, children may have an increased heart rate during domestic conflict and produce the stress hormone cortisol. Children of different ages can show signs of sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems as a result of living with chronic family conflict. Frequent quarrels put the child under stress, a large amount of which interferes with the child’s development.

What a Child May Feel

Emotional egocentrism is a child’s position that is characterized by a fixation on self and a lack of focus on the other person. It can contribute to the child feeling guilty or responsible for the conflict between his or her parents. The child may feel that he or she was the cause of the quarrel and feel guilty about it.

A nervous system that is still forming doesn’t allow the child to adjust to the emotional stress of family conflict. But this is possible if the parents themselves become an example of regulating not only their experiences but also the relationship with their partner.

Can Quarrels Be Useful

First, it’s important to say that when parents or caregivers argue and disagree with each other, it’s normal. In the eyes of the child, a parent’s behavior is a model for coping with life’s challenges. The adult is responsible for the quarrel and how it develops: how he or she conflicts, how he or she deals with his or her feelings during an argument, whether he or she respects his or her partner, whether he or she tries to listen, whether he or she feels responsible for resolving the conflict, what resolution strategies the quarrel uses. This is an important example for the child of how to regulate relationships with people.

There is a difference in the forms of conflict. Intense emotional arguments will frighten the child, can harbor fantasies of an imminent relationship breakup, so it’s worth doing this outside of his presence. However, it’s possible to argue and solve important conflict situations for the family in a calmer state. This way the child will see that compromise is possible.

How to Minimize Harm to Your Child During an Argument

An important way to minimize the harm of an argument is to keep the child out of it. In the tradition of family systems therapy, the family is divided into parent and child subsystems. It’s undesirable to involve the child in an argument, as this can create confusion about his or her place and role in the family. The child expects clear boundaries from the parent that lower his anxiety and give him the necessary boundaries of behavior. In this way he feels that he is cared for.

If it so happens that the child himself became involved in an argument or asked to stop, it’s worth stopping. This way he can feel that his wishes and words are meaningful. You can agree to talk about the problem later. Systemic family therapists, for example, advise apologizing to the child for getting caught up in the argument. This restores the boundary between the subsystems in the family and calms the child down.

How Parents Can Calm Down

However, it’s not always possible to regulate your own emotional heat in an argument and stop it. In this case, there are several options that you can rely on:

  • Concentrate on breathing. Deep breathing allows you to take your time and be aware of the feelings that arise in an argument. This way it’s easier to regulate them and pick up the words.
  • Try something new. Enjoy things you’ve never tested. Try betting Uganda or cooking an unusual meal. 
  • Measure your level of tension. For example, ask yourself the question, “Can I continue the argument or am I already emotionally exhausted and need to distance myself?”
  • Use “self-messages.” You can start with the phrases: “I think that…” or “I feel that…”. This friendly form sounds less threatening to your partner.

How and What to Talk to Your Child About After a Fight Between Parents

You can talk to your child after the quarrel, if you feel calm. Before this you can ask yourself: “What am I feeling right now? What state am I in now?”. If still in an emotionally agitated state, it’s better to postpone the conversation because the child is waiting for the parent to calmly explain what happened to him or her. Since a parent can have different feelings after an argument, it is important not to overwhelm the child with his or her own experiences.

The message that would be important for the child to hear is something like, “Yes, we’re fighting right now, we may have disagreements, but we’ll figure it out for ourselves. We’ve got it under control.”

To minimize your child’s stress, you can say that everyone loves each other, they just sometimes have disagreements and that it’s okay. You can ask your child to share their feelings with you, starting with the words “You must have been scared…”.

What Parents Aren’t Allowed to Do During an Argument

It’s unacceptable to involve the child in an argument between the parents, in particular to lure him or her to one side. This kind of cleavage poses the painful question, “Who do you love more?” This is a traumatic experience for the child because he or she cares about both parents.

Another red flag is that one parent often looks to the child for support. This can burden the child with the responsibility of helping the parent. Systemic family therapists, for example, may advise seeking support outside the family to have outside support – leaning on friends and acquaintances or a therapist.

Chronic conflict is also a red flag. If the quarrels are prolonged and the spouses don’t discuss it, the child may feel emotional tension between the caregivers. This can be noticed by the child’s behavior: for example, he has become more anxious or, on the contrary, depressed, and the usual things and activities that he loves no longer bring him pleasure.

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