This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series
Fighting in front of kids is bad for their future adult selves. There's nothing new about that idea. We've known for almost 50 years that fighting in front of kids shapes their nervous system in problematic ways.
However, new research shows that even low levels of bickering and fighting in front of kids have a lasting negative impact. Kids who witness daily skirmishes between their parents have a hard time processing emotions.
These kids grow up to be anxious, hyper-vigilant, and, perhaps most damaging, they tend to project their inner fear of conflict onto an interaction with their partner, even when the communication is neutral. Their brains are trained to expect a battle 24/7.
This new research tells us that shy, introverted kids are particularly vulnerable. This new research is critically important for couples therapists because it reveals that fighting in front of kids shapes them to accept conflict as a perpetual aspect of human relationships.
Kids, especially shy kids, are not as resilient as we once believed.
Dr. Alice Schermerhorn, the author of the study, was unequivocal. Her research shows that low-levels of constant conflict and fighting in front of kids echoes through time.
Here's how they designed the study. Around 100 children between the ages of 9 to 11 were divided into two groups. These groups differed based on how much fighting in front of kids was going on in their families. These kids were shown pictures of couples engaged in either happy, angry or neutral conversations.
The children where fighting in front of kids was the norm were much more likely to misread the neutral photos as either happy or angry. They were often not even sure. Neutrality was a foreign concept to them. Dr. Schermerhorn points out that this emotional blindness activates a stance of wariness and hyper-vigilance.
Fighting in front of kids shapes children to be hyper-vigilant for any signs of trouble in relationships. This impacts their relationships with peers, teachers, everybody really.
These kids tend to interpret neutral interactions as angry, or may merely experience increased difficulty processing emotional information.
They may also be more attuned to angry conversations, which could be a cue for them to retreat to their room.
They are also on the look-out for the rare happy interactions, which could signal that their parents are emotionally available to them. But because of how their brains have been shaped, neutral parental conversations fail to convey sufficient information. Consequently, their ability to recognize a neutral discussion may be so massively impaired as to render true neutrality as utterly unrecognizable.
Here's the vital information for couples' therapists. Shy children were particularly challenged by the picture of the neutral conversation. Dr. Schermerhorn warns us:
“Parents of shy children need to be especially thoughtful about how they express conflict.”
Low levels of bickering and fighting in front of kids can have a severe and lifelong impact on kids. Dr. Schermerhorn warns us about a later-in-life "gap in perceptual inventory":
“One the one hand, being over-vigilant and anxious can be destabilizing in many different ways....On the other, correctly reading neutral interactions may not be important for children who live in high conflict homes, but that gap in their perceptual inventory could be damaging in subsequent experiences with, for example, teachers, peers, and partners in romantic relationships. No one can eliminate conflict altogether, but helping children get the message that, even when they argue, parents care about each other and can work things out is important.”
We learn how to be intimate partners from our parents. We now know that how we show up with our spouses today has a great deal to do with how our parents rolled back in the day.
What we do matters. What we do echoes through time.
Fighting in front of kids at a low-level may seem par for the course for you now. But long after the bitter nagging and bickering have ended, your kids and grandkids will carry the burden into the future.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.