Few would dispute that the different relationships that exist within a family affect the other members of the family as well. The most important relationship in this dynamic is that of parents and its effect on children. The quality of these relationships can affect children's emotional, cognitive and physical development and can imprint on their mental health as an adult as well.
No relationship is free from turmoil. Conflicts and turmoil help individuals build and grow their relationships. It is a mistake to believe that children are unaware when parents argue behind closed bedroom doors. Children are more receptive to their parents' emotions than we give them credit for.
Marital dispute or conflict has various dimensions that can determine the kind of effect it can create on the children like frequency, intensity, content, and resolution. Cummings classified marital conflicts as destructive and constructive. Constructive arguments involve a healthy argument between parents that ends in a resolution of the matter.
While constructive arguments can benefit children in learning conflict resolution, destructive conflicts can expose the child to further problematic parental interactions.
Destructive arguments consist of verbal aggression like name-calling, insults, threats of abandonment or physical aggression like hitting and pushing, or silent tactics like avoidance or sulking and withdrawing. When parental conflicts are such, children are collateral damage as they threaten the perceived intactness of the family. Conflicts that are hostile and heated can be overwhelming for children and being raised in such environments can impact their ability to form meaningful relationships and their belief in love and security.
From as early as the 1930s, researchers have recognized that disputes between parents have potentially debilitating effects on children’s development. While most children are exposed to periodic conflicts, intense, frequent, and poorly resolved conflicts are indicated to be very harmful.
A child continuously learns from their environment ever since birth. They learn most from their parents and their relationships. They undergo various physical, social, and emotional changes in life that are dependent on the nature of the relationships that surround them.
Marital conflict is a significant source of stress for children of all ages. These influences can be direct or indirect eliciting unhealthy internalized or externalized behavior in children.
Research indicates that during infancy, exposure to distress can result in hampered physical growth and psycho-social withdrawal. Young children may express fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness by displaying overt behavior like being non-compliant or being aggressive in school and among peers. They may also have trouble sleeping and communicating their feelings to their parents and act socially withdrawn. Conflicts during adolescence can result in decreased self-esteem, isolation, and delinquency.
Children often feel emotionally insecure in the family when they see their parents arguing. As a result, they may act out, or try to stop the fight, or even hide in their rooms and withdraw themselves in such situations. They can learn these unhealthy patterns of conflict resolution and use them in their adult relationships as well. Some children might start blaming themselves for their parent's conflicts and that can lead to a breakdown of self-worth and depression.
Sometimes parents tend to displace their anger towards their children and punish them or maybe give them less attention due to preoccupation with the conflicts. This can lead to a hindrance in the parent-child relationship, even in the long run. Children may also start feeling neglected and unwanted or unloved, making them feel more insecure. Children may face loyalty dilemmas and they may take sides of either parent especially if one is lacking in devoting energy and time to the child.
A parental dispute is associated with various child adjustment problems including impairment in social and academic functioning. Lower levels of interpersonal skills and problem-solving abilities, and undermined self-concept, fearful attachment styles are found to be some of the cognitive, emotional, and social effects of parental conflict among children. Just watching parents fight and argue, hurl insults at each other, or acting cold can poison the idea of ‘love’ in children’s minds. It can affect the kind of relationships that they have in the future.
Many other factors can play a role in how much a child is affected by parental dispute like socio-economic status, age, temperament of the child, coping strategies, grandparents or other parent-like figures, and the presence or absence of siblings. Siblings can become overly protective of each other or overinvolved in each other's lives. Literature indicates that parental conflict is harmful to children regardless if the parents decide to stay as intact families or choose to divorce.
As Salman Rushdie said, trouble in marriage is like monsoon water accumulating on a flat roof, it gets heavier and heavier and you don’t realize it until one day, the entire roof falls on your head. Parents must understand that it’s not the conflict but how they manage the conflict that determines its effect on their children. No relationship is free of arguments but what matters is how you solve them. It can be beneficial for children to see their parents resolve conflicts in a positive and mutually satisfying manner. Parents must be thoughtful about how they express conflict in front of their children as, according to a study, it can do lasting damage to a child’s psyche. For those stuck in poor ways of conflict resolution, it’s never too late to try healthier ways of tackling differences.
According to Glucoft Wong, parents must not hide the reality from their children to keep them safe from all the arguing. They should model real life at its best.
Couples should not shy away from seeking professional help as getting an objective, third party involved who is trained in conflict resolution can be very beneficial not only for the couple but also for their children’s healthy development.
When discussions become intense, parents can try to take “time-out”, step away from the conversation and get back when they are cooled down, and perhaps think more clearly. They should practice taking turns to talk, actively listen to each other, validate their partner's feelings and perspectives, brainstorm possible solutions together, lead with empathy, and always articulate that the children are not the issue or part of it. The most important thing is to keep in mind that they are all on the same team.
Family health and well-being are very important for child development, as pointed out by Urie Bronfenbrenner, a developmental psychologist. He said that “the family is the most effective and economic structure for nurturing and sustaining the capacity of human beings to function effectively in all domains of human activity—intellectual, social, emotional, and physiological.”
Effects of divorce on the emotional development of a child
Finding that right partner, imagining a whole life together with that partner and at the end when you both get old, sitting back in that rocking chair and talking about all those beautiful memories which were made together, is the dream of most people, right? This dream starts building when the two souls come together and become one through the knot of marriage. As it is written in the Bible, in the Gospel of St.Mark - "No longer two but one", can be the one of the simple ways of defining marriage.
For some their dreams do come true, but for some it ends in a very early or even a very later stage of their marriage, taking to the stage of divorce. When there occurs an imbalance in the equilibrium of the relation of both partners, that's the point when divorce occurs. It offers a vital legal and emotional role. Now one more thing which is being affected in the midst of all these is the life of their children. The life and development of a child starts from their family, and it's that space where their whole personality also develops.
But what we need to pay attention to is the relationship the parents hold with their children and the nature of their divorce, as this can also vary in the effects it has on the emotional development of the child. Even for parents it's a changing period, they also have to learn different ways in which they can parent their children. If we move further and look at divorce through the lens of a child, in general we can feel that fear, anger, sadness which that child faces while seeing his/her parents indulging in a fight or one parent struggling through the divorce. The child can turn out to be a supportive system to that parent or can imbibe all the anger issues he/she has seen which in turn as said earlier can have an impact on the personality of the child which in the future can again have an impact on their relations with others.
Now there are different ways which have been seen to affect the child, and some of the most common are they might be poor in their academics, they might not have interest in taking part in the social activities, anger, they have difficulty in adapting to the changes, etc. But there are effects which have a deeper effect on the life of a child and that is when it has an effect on the psychological level. Many at times children might not show the way they are feeling because of the separation their parents have gone through, also there are children who would not want to disclose their feelings in front of their parents because of the struggles they see their parents go through. But at the end children also would want someone in their life with whom they can connect and let out their feelings.
Childhood is that age when more care and support is required from the parents' side, and if you are all left alone at this point of time or period in your life, one can imagine the emptiness one feels. The parents might be there to take care of the child but it is never the same if compared with the child whose both parents are there for them whenever they need them. The child might also have to stay in shifts with their parents, and some of these children also are teased by their classmates which again can have a negative impact on the emotional wellbeing of the child. Sometimes it's true that a divorce is needed for the betterment of the life of both the partners and there are also those who take in consideration their children while they go through this process of divorce, but with making one life better it affects the child's emotional state in a certain manner.
These children are also looked down upon by few in the society, stating that since the child has divorced parents then the child might do things of their own will and no one would care what that child is doing. But what the society needs to understand is that, like others they too have their own issues which they are dealing on a daily basis, the emotional state from which they go through and which many at times they are unable to express it openly, so in order as a first step a supportive society is what which is needed, as the society also plays a huge role on the emotional well being of the child.
Then comes the parents, they have to talk to their children on a one on one basis, understanding how they are feeling or what their concerns are, and be there for them. Now at the end its more on the awareness which needs to be provided, and mental health support can also be given to the child and make them have a belief that they are also heard and deserve a normal life like those children whose both parents are still together.