Are children really affected watching their parents argue?

‘I was convinced this was it. I was witnessing the moment my parents were separating’

Perhaps our arguments, when balanced and emotionally uncharged, can be a teaching moment.

Perhaps our arguments, when balanced and emotionally uncharged, can be a teaching moment.

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I skipped down the stairs, jumping over every second step as nine-year-olds do. I was oblivious to the unknown territory I was about to walk into in the kitchen.

My parents were fighting.

An almighty, god awful fight which hit me full force in the stomach.

My parents never fought. Or at least, they kept their disagreements private, away from their children’s eyes and ears. Being the youngest child, I was completely unaware of any tension that may have ever existed between our parents.

In my mind, they never even quarrelled over who was to make the tea, which is why walking in on that fight was like a sucker punch.

My stomach churned in a knot and I felt physically sick watching my parents fight for what I thought was the very first time. A loud, angry and biting fight. My ordinarily quiet and reposed Dad was irate. My kind and gentle Mum was exasperated. They shouted and passed stabbing glares at each other across the breakfast bar.

I was convinced that this was it. I was witnessing the moment my parents were separating. I would see my Dad once a month until he no longer wanted the inconvenience of entertaining me. My Mum would end up bitter towards me because I witnessed the fight and made it worse somehow. A child’s mind wanders.

Geraldine Walsh.
Geraldine Walsh.

This was the only time I saw my parents fight. I didn’t hear a single word of their argument. I only saw the body language, heard the tone and felt the caustic air, which to me was more damaging than whatever it was they were fighting over. Before the day was through, whatever it was that saw them angry had vanished. It left a lasting impression on my small mind however and the worry of believing my parents relationship was failing lingered for some time. 47 years later they have proved me wrong.

Fragile

I look at myself now and at my own 12-year marriage. With a four-year-old and a one-year-old, we are exasperated, exhausted and fragile. Despite our best efforts, we fight more than we’d like to in front of our kids as parenting small children has taken its toll on our patience and frustration.

My worry is, how our children are affected watching us fight far more frequently than my parents ever did. If one argument had such an impact on me, how do our small arguments or sometimes antagonised quarrels affect our children?

How can we strike a balance when our kids give us an unwanted, impromptu audience? I’m concerned our arguing will have long lasting effects.

Social care worker, Laura Foley, acknowledges my worries saying, “many studies find that there is a direct link between arguing in the home and emotional and mental health problems. Some potential traits and disorders that stem from witnessing parents arguing are OCD, difficulty in social development, depression, anti-social behaviour, aggression and anxiety.”

Laura Foley.
Laura Foley.

As with that one argument I witnessed, Foley says, “words don’t solely affect the person they’re aimed towards. If a child can see or hear, they can hurt. The family home should be a child’s safest environment. Children of all ages are perceptive and can quickly become emotionally distressed when their safety becomes compromised by the ones who should be protecting them.”

How we argue often determines the atmosphere in the home and in turn how our children are affected. Counselling psychologist Sally O’Reilly explains that the nature and quality of a fight will depend on how damaging it is to spectators.“Constructive arguments – where parents disagree but negotiate in a respectful way that results in compromise and resolution – can be instructive, even helpful to a child.

“Destructive arguments – where there is conflict, sustained shouting, abuse, name-calling, blaming, manipulation and/or threats – has short- to long-term negative effects on children’s emotional, psychological and social development.”

Clash

Our arguments are more like raised voices in a bad Morecambe and Wise sketch as we frustrate each other and clash over parenting styles. There is no intense negativity towards the other person. I am, however, guilty of silently abandoning an argument for later if I notice small eyes watching. O’Reilly, who is based in Cork, suggests that destructive arguments includes these invisible ones also. “We might think we’re doing great saving the argument for later but children are practically telepathic. They feel tension keenly. Unexpressed resentment or hurt does not go unnoticed. When we hide all these feelings regularly as a way of relating, we are merely teaching kids to do the same.”

Sally O'Reilly.
Sally O'Reilly.

Foley suggests that “there is a delicate line between parents fighting and disagreeing. A keyword in differentiating the two is tone. Children as young as six months can pick up on argumentative tones leading to potential alterations of the brain due to stress. Fighting creates an emotionally charged environment that removes home security and creates emotional distress. In comparison, disagreements in front of children could be positive if they are also there to witness the rectification afterwards.”

Perhaps our arguments, when balanced and emotionally uncharged, can be a teaching moment. Modelling how to argue well, as O’Reilly says, can teach children that conflict is normal. She says “it is okay to have different needs to others. It is okay to be angry but not okay to be abusive. It’s important to take responsibility for your own feelings and actions and to apologise if you’ve caused hurt or got something wrong.”

Arguing positively is almost a skill.

As those small eyes and ears watch and listen its good to remember to stay balanced and diplomatic. O’Reilly encourages us to maintain equilibrium by ensuring that, “There are no old things brought up to exacerbate the blame and there is no manipulation. When we communicate in this way we are more likely to be heard and understood. A child witnessing this learns that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to name feelings, to ask for acknowledgement and to expect resolution.”

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