Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds, they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
In the throws of family conflict, an all to often occurrence seen in today’s social chaos, what is often left untold is the effects it has on the children- those innocent parties that hear, and yes listen to every word of the conflict regardless of whether their presence is known or not. As parents, we often face a Catch 22 when dealing with relationship conflict and the effects it has on our children. On one side, when involved in a relationship , there are times when disagreements will naturally arise. Even though we may strive to avoid such conflicts with a spouse or a loved-one, arguments nevertheless arise, and can be caused by a number of factors including personal experience, difference of morals, values, and ethics, and differing perceptions about where the relationship is versus where each party wants to be in their independent lives. On the other hand, is the need we have to instil those values on the next generation, teaching them the life lessons we find important, so that our progeny will successfully develop skills to navigate the common stresses life will throw their way; hopefully finding ways to better themselves in a manner the parental generation could not.
So what messages do you send your children in the throws of family conflict?
While not meant to be a jab to the almighty parental ego, or a denial of the importance conflict plays in interpersonal growth, as the promoters of our children’s social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual development, we must make ourselves aware of and accountable for the ways our interpersonal conflicts imprint upon our children the social skills they will use to handle issues of relationship distress and conflict. While differences of opinion are common within interpersonal relationships, through learning ways to navigate towards mutual understanding, children become better navigators of stressing events by developing prosocial values, morals, and ethically based ways to handle the stresses present.
In a recent article, I explored the importance of helping children navigate the conflict present within divorce through open communication, setting the tone for clear decisions based upon empathic awareness of a child’s emotional concerns, and helping them navigate their emotional landscape through a child centered lens. While children have access to the same emotions adults do, they do not necessarily have the logic based capacity to explain their emotional state in the same way an adult can.
Most adults have access to at least a rudimentary set of emotions by which they can begin to formulate meaning about the ways they interact within the environment. Because children are dependent, they have not yet shifted from a parent-centered view, causing them to develop a similar value, moral, and social expectation set as that of their parents. This is fundamental to the way we learn, and pass on what is important from one generation to the next. However, as a child develops, so too does their self-psychological lens, and they develop the capacity to develop their own perceptions about right and wrong, good feelings versus bad feelings, and other foundational aspects of moral development still dependent on, yet functionally becoming independent of their parent’s value set. Within early life, when a child faces conflict, the meta-messages behind such conflict tears at them, as they strive to make sense between what is right and wrong, facing additional conflict from judging between the two very parties that are responsible to teach them the values they strive to learn. Within the later example, the child simply is able to make their own moral judgment, based upon the evidence they are subjected too, oftentimes either fighting one, or both parents, or simply succumbing to the stress found present within the emotional conflict, giving up their locus of control to fate, never establishing self direction as an aspect of internal growth.
While the emotions present in divorce are amplified examples of how conflict affects children’s emotional and psychological wellbeing, the basic skills of helping your children navigate through there emotions are no different for families who remain together, yet have intermittent conflicts.
Within a two parent family, a child must learn to navigate between two opposing, yet complimentary sets of values, morals, and ethics within the family structure. A child is born into their family, and learns within its expectations ways to navigate the world, ways to perceive and interact with the environment, develops their own set of morals, values, and ideologies, and will ultimately pass these onto their children. Through a complex process of learning, adapting to, synthesizing, ridding one’s self of the unwanted, and integrating the opposing themes common within interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts, a child assumes the complex task of mediating between the often opposing themes of parental values while developing their own attitudes, beliefs, and environmental understanding dependent on, yet independently functioning from each parent’s personal beliefs. While children are ultimately in control of their emotional state, as parent’s we stand as gatekeepers to the way our children perceive and make sense of their emotions, giving us utmost responsibility to help them develop healthy ways to handle, integrate, and move on from unhealthy emotional and behavioral concerns.
So what are we to do?
We must first define what the child-centered approach is not.
Your child is not a referee, mediator, or judge – A child centered approach does not mean you child is the mediator between you and your spouse’s interpersonal conflict. It is up to you as parents to resolve your differences, and then help your child understand, navigate, and integrate their emotional response to the conflict they have heard. Sounds like common sense, IT IS NOT! More often than not, I have seen parents not only involve their children in their interpersonal conflicts, expecting them to side with one parent over another, and ultimately divide the child at the expense of their immature conflicts, but also expect reinforcement from their child for the very behaviors that are dividing them at the psychological level.
A child centered approach does not place the locus of control within a child’s hands – Parental responsibility and legal judgment remain always within a parent’s control. Children want rights, but ultimately lack the cognitive capacity to assume the responsibility given within the rights they seek. Children are ego-centric, and have not made full sense of the gifts they are given. Unfortunately, many adults are similar, and will ardently fight for their rights while finding excuses for their inability and reluctance to assume responsibility. As parents, we must first and foremost begin to navigate our own awareness of emotional states, so that we can help our children navigate their feelings in a manner that promotes social wellbeing.
Your child understands more than you think – Because your child understands things from a more simplistic perspective, it does not mean that your level of consciousness is somehow superior to theirs. Children are much more in touch with their emotions, because they have not had the years to develop repressive and suppressive tendencies adults have to deal with unwanted emotional states. Listen to them, and help them understand what they are dealing with. Don’t teach them to repress: Teach them to Express. This alows for more fluid handling of both wanted and unwanted emotions, leading to better integration and ultimately better standing in allowing for other oppinions to be voiced, and yes, also to be heard.
In our current social policy, it is too easy to see how a generation of parents too wrapped up in their own conflicts have promoted a generation of children unable to express, handle, or integrate their emotional conflicts. Divorce is steady at 50+%, we remain in a state of perpetual conflict and war, and we are bombarded daily with images from the news of unwanted conflicts, hatred, and misunderstandings. Where do our children stand?
As we are bombarded daily with news regarding mass shootings, the rise of Aspergers and other forms of autistic expression, we should be faced with a dialogue of not whether there should or should not be more laws for gun control, but to examine the root causes of the social mores we face. Children need to learn about emotions. Their adult lives are dependent on these lessons. However, many adults have not been taught the very lessons they are expected to teach, and enter parenthood uneducated and even unable to make the transition towards understanding their own emotions let alone those of their children.
As families, and even as a country, we must strive to help our children learn healthy ways for interpersonal conflict resolution. This stands as a basis from which they can grow more harmonious, equitable, and grounded within their psychological development. Maybe in turn, through the lessons taught them, we too may have a new beginning, finding ourselves in the happy eyes of our children, who look upon us in thanks for the guidance we have given.