Marital conflict is a key factor in adjustment problems in children. But all marriages have some degree of conflict, so what are parents to do?
The good news is that there's a broad range of "normal" marital conflict that does not seem to affect children negatively, especially if you show your children that you and your spouse can resolve problems in positive ways.
Does all conflict need to take place behind closed doors? Researchers say not necessarily (Cummings, 1994). In fact, resolving marital conflict constructively can actually have positive benefits for a child.
It is important to realize that children who witness parental fighting outside the range of "normal" (extreme conflict that involves throwing things, loud yelling, intense nonverbal anger, slamming doors, and other physical behavior) have the same sorts of problems as children who are abused.
Children who witness intense marital conflict will often act out destructive behavior on other children, feel higher levels of stress when anger arises (children do not "get used to it"), have higher levels of guilt and shame, and try to step in to calm things down or distract parents.
This puts an unnecessary amount of pressure and stress on a child and can create problems for the child later in life.
Within a broad normal range, marital conflict does not seem to affect children negatively, especially if they know their parents worked through the conflict.
Interestingly, "working things out" can be seen or not seen by the child and still benefit them. Most children (70%) assume that when parents are talking together in a room after an argument, they are working out their differences (Cummings).
Explaining to children that you've worked through a problem or issue can be just as helpful as allowing them to watch you do it, and has the added benefit of your being able to explain it in terms your children understand.
You can use your conflicts as teaching moments for positive ways to resolve differences (Marchant & Young, 2005).
For a preschooler an explanation of resolution might be as simple as, "I felt upset with Dad because he's been gone a lot lately. He explained that he's very busy at work, and hopefully next week we'll all be able to spend more time together. We both feel better now."
For an adolescent, the description may be more complex if the issue is not a private matter between husband and wife.
In an Ensign article about how to strengthen marriages, one member shared this truth: "Marital difficulties are best kept between the partners for resolution" (Beecher 66).
While it is often appropriate to let children know a conflict was resolved and all is now well, it is not appropriate to involve the children in the conflict. Asking them to repeat how they remember an event, or weigh in on an issue is not healthy.
Another thing to keep in mind is that conflict about the children themselves is difficult for children to handle. Even frustration between parents about who is going to pick up a child from lessons can be upsetting to a child.
Discuss with your spouse in a neutral moment whether or not your rules for marital conflict feel safe. Are the "lines you just don't cross" in appropriate places for you personally and for your children? Is the frequency and level of conflict low enough that you are able to focus your energy on the positive in your marriage and on your relationships with your children?
If there are destructive or extreme behaviors in your marriage that you aren't sure how to work through, consider professional counseling. This can be a gift to every member of your family.
The next time you have conflict with your spouse and your children are aware of it, take the time to explain briefly and in age-appropriate terms to your children what you did to work it out. You may want to discuss the explanation you'll give your children with your spouse briefly beforehand, keeping in mind the point is only to let the children know it's worked out and you both feel good again. Keep the focus on the things you did to make amends rather than on the problem.
One type of conflict that a child should not witness is conflict about the child himself. Any discussions or disagreements of how to handle difficult child behavior should take place privately between parents. There are other issues that should remain private as well.
Avoiding frequent and extreme conflict, and giving your children explanations of working through conflict, something that sometimes is hidden from children--can actually help them.
Allowing children to understand that you know how to work things out will help children feel secure in knowing that you love each other no matter what.
Letting them understand how you work through conflict in positive ways can teach them to resolve their conflicts in healthy ways as well.
Beecher, K. (2001). "Between the Two of Us," Ensign, Jan., 66.
Cummings, E. M. (1994). "Marital Conflict and Children's Functioning." Social Development, 3, 16-36.
Marchant, M. & Young, R. (2005). 3 B's of effective parenting: Be proactive, be positive, and be consistent. Marriage and Families, (Winter), 18-25.