Anyone who has grown up with their parents constantly fighting with each other knows the pain and emotional distress their verbal duels can cause.
Their constant bickerings and shouting matches can affect their children’s long-term mental health and development and leave them – infants, children as well as teenagers – disillusioned, angry, and emotionally vulnerable.
Even sleeping babies, research shows, can sense their parents’ bickering and show increased levels of stress when they hear angry voices.
Mental health, diseases
Studies have shown parents’ arguments can prove more damaging to a child’s mental health than their separation or divorce.
A recent study by the University of Sussex in the UK and the Early Intervention Foundation found that children’s exposure to conflict between parents can put their long-term mental health and life chances at risk.
Studies have also shown that stress during childhood can also expose them to diseases in adulthood like diabetes, heart problems, low immunity and asthma.
“Parental discord can cause severe emotional damage to the child who witnesses such quarrels on a regular basis. The more severe and serious the nature of arguments, the more serious is the emotional turmoil inside the child,” explains Dr. Ripan Sippy, clinical and child psychologist based in Delhi.
Dr. Sippy says children exposed to regular conflicts between parents develop behavioural, emotional and adjustment problems, and often vent out their repressed feelings of fear, anger and sadness in the form of bullying others, being aggressive and stubborn, disobedient, fearful or timid, and so on.
“Some children may also develop anti-social and criminal behaviours such as bunking school, disregard for rights of others, lying, stealing, cheating, addictions to nicotine/alcohol, gambling, excessive social networking/video gaming, excessive involvements with friends, staying outside home excessively and eve-teasing,” he adds.
They also tend to be abusive, aggressive and vocal in their approach rather than being understanding when they are in conflict with someone as they unknowingly imitate what they observe.
Gauging the problem
Parents, doctors say, fail to realise the negative effect their fights can have on children.
“In most of the cases, if a parent is impulsive or has anger issues, he or she may not realise that his/her actions may lead to a lot of psychological damage to the child. Along with this, lack of insight that what we are doing in front of the child can have harmful consequences adds to the problems,” Dr. Deepali Batra, clinical and child psychologist, says.
“Parents usually blame each other for the negative consequences, but don’t seek professional help. Because of the stigma attached people avoid meeting a mental health professional,” she says.
Frequent quarrels between parents can result in a strained relationship with their child, especially when they are pulled into the argument and made to take sides. The pressure to take sides can also cause emotional stress and anger for the child.
“Children at times pick sides on who is correct and who is not and hence may develop feelings of dislike or communication gap with the parent he/she holds as responsible for the conflicts,” explains Dr Sippy.
Dr. Nisha Khanna, Delhi-based relationship and marriage counsellor, adds when one parent shares his/her emotional problems or grievances against the other partner with the child, it is natural for the child to get biased.
“The child doesn’t get the chance to hear the other side of the story. If one parent is spending more time and interacting more with the child, the inclination will be more towards that parent,” she says.
A child may also develop a resentment towards both the parents and withdraw from the family to avoid conflicts at home.
Shaping the future
Early childhood experiences shape our personality as adults, including our ability to develop healthy romantic relationships in the future.
How parents interact with each other or handle a conflict rub off on their children and this, in turn, influences the child’s approach or behaviour towards their partner in the future.
Dr. Batra agrees that children who endure the psychological impacts of parental discord face problems in their own marital life or future romantic relationships.
Parental conflicts may also impact the child’s views about marriage, adds Dr Khanna, and the child may feel a marriage is all about fighting and such negative perception can be harmful.
Children, who grow up in dysfunctional families, also fail to understand the parameters of a healthy relationship.
“They keep bearing the negative behavioural issues of their parent(s). They tend to either overdo or underdo in a romantic relationship. For example, some may become too career oriented and forget their partner or family; others may make their life revolve around the relationship. In other words, they fail to establish a balance, which is key to any successful relationship,” says Dr. Khanna.
“Behavioural issues such as being over dominating or too submissive can also cause problems.”
Couples should not think twice before approaching a counsellor if frequent conflicts with a partner are creating a toxic environment at home.
“It is usually advisable to seek professional help in the initial stages of a marriage or relationship or when the conflicts arise rather than ignoring the issues. Delay will lead to the piling up of issues and may become difficult to resolve,” says Dr Khanna.
He also advises couples experiencing issues such as lack of compatibility, sexual problems, communication gap, difficulty resolving a conflict and abusive behaviour should approach a professional.
“Couples can seek the help of friends or relatives, but I always advise parents not to involve their children. It impacts the psyche of a child and hinders his/her natural emotional growth,” Dr Khanna stresses.
In certain scenarios, children can also be brought along for counselling, she adds.
“Children can be taught how not to intervene their parents’ life.”
Handling it well
Conflicts are normal, but how one handles them as parents are what matters.
“I always advise parents not to fight in front of children. If an argument happens, make sure you also show the child that the issue has been resolved. Show them your affection for your partner. Cuddling and hugging are all ways to show your love for one another,” Dr Khanna advises.
“Parents should focus on their word selection, tone and volume while speaking to the child or to each other. If one parent is losing control, the other should avoid getting into the argumentative mode and should postpone the discussion for another time, when both are calm and alone,” says Dr Batra.
“Also, they should complement each other for their efforts, which will enhance their relationship. Trust and respect are the most important ingredients of a healthy relationship. That sets an example for the child.”
Couples often say they stick to a bad marriage for the sake of their children but don’t realise that they end up doing more harm than good.
“When parents stay together for their children, they are actually harming the child physically, emotionally and mentally in all parameters. Instead, they can choose to stay separate and give the child the right quality and quantity of time and support that he/she needs,” Dr Khanna stresses.
First Published: Aug 02, 2018 09:36 IST