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When parents are in conflict how do children suffer?

Growing up in a household that held more arguments, disagreements and silent treatment, than laughter, smiles and support I know too well the impact on my own mental health of unhappy parents. Don’t get me wrong; there was a lot of love in the house. But from the way it was communicated between my parents, well I learnt quite quickly that you shouted at your loved ones, you berated them for getting things wrong and you most certainly didn’t talk things through.

Relate has released a study that shows one in five UK couples are close to break up.

What does this mean for families? Where there was love and commitment between the couple, when choices were made to get together, possibly to get married and to start a family. Where did that love and commitment go?

Many of us have grown up in households that were not too happy. And we don’t need to look too far to see why; our parents might not have grown up in happy households either. Perhaps our grandparents were growing up in the war so conflict was part of their everyday lives. We didn’t know as much about mental health then. After all ‘children should be seen and not heard’ was still a common saying only 40 years ago.

We also hail from a society that believed marriage and monogamy should be held above all else; to ‘stay together for the children’s sake'. It doesn’t take much to see how our ideas have been shaped. 

We now know that growing up in a fraught environment can affect children’s mental health. A stable home life where a loving parental relationship is present, with respect and harmony is the ideal environment for children. But when those relationships, which could teach us about how to love each other, communicate with one another and offer a secure safe base, from which to go out into the world and learn, teach us the opposite, we need to wonder how we can live healthier emotional lives. 

So what are the facts? 

  • Children’s emotional health is shaped by their environment. 
  • The more secure the home environment, the more secure the young person.
  • The more secure the young person, the more able they are to learn, build strong relationships, and build resilience to help manage life’s inevitable losses and difficulties. 
  • Neuroscience shows us the stronger the bonding between child and parent the more brain matter the child develops! This process begins in the womb. So we know we can literally ‘love’ a person to be healthier both emotionally, physically and intellectually. 

So how can we provide security?

The short answer – we need to provide an environment where a child is seen, responded to, feels understood and respected and is given enough space to explore in an encouraging environment and where failures are supported and empathised with. Where love, communication and support are taught through example. This is near on impossible when family life is difficult, parents are unhappy within themselves and with each other. 

The long answer – we need to look inwards. We need to provide a secure space for ourselves first in order to provide this for our children.

If we understand ourselves better, we begin to see what are the great things we do and have learnt, and do more of them, confidently. 

We can understand why we seem to repeat the same things our parents did that we always promised ourselves we wouldn’t and make intention to change.

We’ve internalised not only our parents but also all of society's messages and through self-examination we can begin to unpick what it is we actually want to pass on to our children and to shed the things that no longer fit our self image.

We need to model healthy relationships to our children; to show them it’s OK to make mistakes, they will be forgiven and loved. For a child to believe they will be loved, they need to see love around them, believe healthy relationships are available to them; we teach this by being in those happy relationships. We prevent damage by not staying in unhealthy relationships. 

So what’s available when things are tough? 

Personal therapy provides a space where you can go to explore why it is that you feel so overwhelmed with life and parenting, that it always feels like you never get it right, or that all you need is some love, care and support but can’t seem to find it. A place to explore what breaking up or staying with your partner might mean for you, for your children.

Parenting classes might allow a deeper understanding of what your parenting style is, and whether it actually reflects your values.

Or perhaps beginning with personal reflection is the best place to start. 

Asking yourself these questions might help, and keeping a journal to record responses will help you track the thoughts in your mind:

  • How do I respond with my partner in front of the children? 
  • Know this; young children may not understand your words but their survival is based on reading your emotion so they understand a lot of what is going on by just watching you. 
  • What do I want to teach my children about whether their needs for care and understanding will get met in life? 
  • How do I feel my needs for care and understanding get met? 
  • If there was one thing I know I am confident about in my parenting, it would be…..
  • If there were one thing I wanted to stop doing it would be … 
  • How do I feel about my own upbringing; what would I keep the same and what would I change? 

Taking a look inside of ourselves can be tough, emotional and sometimes unbearable, so please take some time to take care of yourself if you choose to enter into a process of self-examination. Choosing professional support by your side as you enter into this journey, can be helpful.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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