When Parents Fight, Kids Suffer

Katie Young
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Wednesday - August 20, 2008
| Del.icio.us

It’s one thing to have an argument with your spouse where you get angry and get loud when it’s just the two of you - no kids around. But what do you about disagreements once you have a baby on board?

Some people say that the baby can feel negative emotions even in the womb. In the second trimester, they can hear sounds and voices as well. So many parents-to-be worry about staying positive and happy well before the baby arrives so that the baby isn’t affected by tension or negative feelings.

It’s inevitable that disagreements and arguments will arise both before and after the baby comes. And when you’re in a situation where you have lack of sleep and the demands of a newborn to contend with, it’s even more likely that you and your spouse will get on each other’s nerves and bicker.

So how can you handle conflicts with your partner without it negatively affecting your child?

June W. J. Ching, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice and past-president of the Hawaii Psychological Association, reminds people that having a baby is a big transition and change for everyone.

She says parents should realize in the beginning that emotions might be running high and that it’s a temporary period.

“You’re changing from a couple to a triad, so the dynamics change,” says Ching, who specializes in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, adults and families. “Be cognizant of your partner’s feelings and let your partner know what your needs are.”

Ching says that babies can pick up when their environment is mellow and they have a physiological response that makes them alert to something going on.

“Most parents want to do right by their kids; they want to know what their baby is hearing or picking up,” she explains. “What kinds of things are your kids seeing or what kinds of snapshots are they getting? What’s coming across to them in terms of both verbal and non-verbal language?”

Ching says that if you start to disagree, first gauge how big an argument you think it could become. If you feel you are headed for a meltdown, do it in another room away from your child.

Also, don’t involve your child in the conflict by making them take sides or by saying negative things to them about the other parent.

Children also pick up on the “silent treatment” as well, so just ignoring your partner for days during or after a conflict could have a negative effect on your child.

“Whether baby is here or not, communication is really important,” says Ching. “Do you talk to each other about feelings, fears and hopes? Can you express your needs when you’re tired or when you need extra affection or you want your partner to come home a little early because you’ve had one of those days?”

Talking to each other in a constructive way also helps you feel connected as a couple because you can hear what your partner’s rationale is and where they’re coming from.

Being parents increases the potential for small misunderstandings, says Ching, especially when your parenting styles might be different. Flare-ups occur because there are differences in terms of those styles or something is said in a way that makes one parent defensive.

“These are things to learn a resolve,” says Ching. “Parents should go into it knowing there is not just one way to do things.”

So learn how to talk to each other and listen to each other before baby arrives and you’ll have an easier time getting through those inevitable conflicts.

Ching says that when a disagreement does come up, communicate to your children that it’s never their fault. Tell them that sometimes people disagree, but let them know how people make up with each other so they know that parents can argue but also solve problems together.

If you feel like you really “lost it” during the argument, tell your child that you’re sorry, that you got angry and said things, but now you feel bad and you really love their mother or father. Let them know that you will work on not doing those things anymore.

If you don’t watch your arguing, you’ll notice the negative effects on your child, says Ching. The baby might be stressed, startled or cry. They might have a hard time settling down. “This should be a red flag that you are talking too loud. If there is a lot of intense conflict or name calling, it disrupts the child’s sense of security.

“Children see their parents as people they put up on a pedestal, in a way. They see them fighting and they’re scared about what might happen. They don’t know if they are supposed to be referees or just withdraw.”

Yes, even people who love each other will fight sometimes. But learn to keep disagreements in perspective. If you feel you’re arguing all the time, then it’s time to seek help - for the sake of your child.

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