Jack and Rachel have been in a contentious marriage for quite some time. Their friends would describe them as a high conflict couple. The stress is getting to their two middle school children who beg their parents to stop fighting and try to get along. The youngest child finds herself covering her ears and retreats to her room crying. But she can hear the conflict and feels sad.
What is the impact of such fighting on the children? Significant.
- Physiological effects: When parents fight, a child’s heart rate becomes faster and their blood pressure rises. Stress hormones are released in their urine. The immune system is depleted, making them ripe for infections.
- Emotional effects: It’s hard for children to regulate their emotions during parent conflict. They are more focused on the upsets of their parent and less able to soothe themselves. They experience feelings of powerlessness—they can’t stop the fighting and that loss of control is frightening. The stress is overwhelming. In hostile family situations, children are more at risk for depression and anxiety.
- Academic effects: Learning suffers. Grade point averages dive and they perform worse on standardized testing. In fact, grade failure is not predicted by divorce, but by constant marital conflict.
- Social effects: Marital fighting makes children more at risk for teen pregnancy, poverty and being expelled from school. Truancy and absenteeism increase.
- Relationship effects: Children often feel at fault for their parents’ discord. They may be in the middle of conflict and forced to take sides. The lack of civil conflict discussions and resolutions means they don’t learn how to deal with conflict in their own relationships as a child or later as an adult.
If you need good reasons to work at conflict in a civil and respectable manner with your spouse, consider the above. This is not meant to place guilt, but help you understand the reality of high conflict marriages. Children need you to navigate conflict and provide emotional stability.
For help, We Need to Talk by Dr. Linda Mintle