By Michael G. Conner, Psy.D,
Children not only learn from what they do, but they also learn from what they see their parents doing. Realizing this can be important because many parents express their conflicts and disagreements in front of their children. Consider the following before you disagree, argue, or start a conflict in front of your children.
The emotional bonds formed between parents and children cause children to notice and adopt the values, attitudes, and behavior of their parents. Children trust, imitate, and try to pay attention to the people they bond with. But unlike adults, children tend to absorb the perspective of both parents directly. They do so with little hesitation and without experience.
When parents express their conflicts, the psychological impact on children can produce uncertainty, emotional instability, erratic thinking, and hyperactivity. While many children are not affected by mild disagreements, some children are more sensitive and prone to act on the basis of confused feelings. How do children cope with conflicted parental views of what is right or wrong? The answer is, “They don’t do it very well.”
The impact of disagreements and conflicts will vary as children get older. But what many parents don’t realize is that children will begin to ignore their parents’ wishes, values, and attitudes when their parents argue and express their conflicts in their presence. Children tend to think, “If my parents can’t agree, then I guess I’m free to believe and do whatever I want.” Both parents lose credibility when they argue in front of children.
Imitation of parental behavior is the most frustrating consequence of parent conflicts and disagreements. Children not only imitate their parents’ behavior, but they tend to engage in competitive escalation. They try to outdo their parents. In this way, children learn to express themselves with a similar tone, volume, pitch, and rate. This explains why so many children end up acting like the very parent they have conflicts with.
[One main] cause of conflicts and disagreements is the failure of parents to discuss their approach to parenting before the need arises. Very few parents discuss how to handle problems until they are facing a problem. A proactive approach to parenting is far more effective than a reactive response to problems.
— Don’t discuss parenting issues in front of your child until both parents have talked about them and resolve the issues in private. Avoid expressing your disapproval of the other parent’s position or comments in front of a child.
— Settle on a parenting approach that you will both support. It does not help if you agree on an approach in order to avoid an argument and then don’t support each other later.
— Decide what you expect from your children before they raise issues that would result in a parental disagreement or conflict.