Are the kids alright? Coping with parental conflict

Often when couples are grappling with ongoing problems that don't seem easy to resolve, arguments can get going at home, and it's hard to avoid these happening out of earshot of the children. Even when we think they're unaware or unaffected, it can be a shock to discover that they have witnessed our angry outbursts, and may start to either act out or become depressed/anxious in response.

Of course children will be affected when their parents are fighting! It's important first of all to learn skills in working through issues constructively. You are doing a greater service to your kids when you show them that conflict can be either resolved, or where issues cannot so easily be sorted through, that you are treating each other with respect. 

Children who have grown up with no idea that their parents ever had to struggle with problems are not necessarily at an advantage - they may not then learn how to deal effectively with the inevitable conflicts that will arise in their relationships with friends, and then later with partners and their own children.

Like adults, children tend to either 'act out'  - that is, they may behave in a way that is disruptive to others - or 'act in' - becoming sad and/or anxious. It's easy to miss that 'acting in' kids are also distressed - they may seem to be doing fine because they are quiet and obedient. It is important to check with them how they are feeling, to encourage them to talk about their feelings, and to take their concerns seriously.

While it may be helpful for your child to have someone outside your family to talk to (such as a counsellor), it will also be important that they feel they can talk to you about their concerns, and trust that you will be able to hear what they have to say without becoming defensive or punishing them for letting you know, for example, that they are upset by your fighting. 

Family counselling can be a place where children can be supported to connect to and express their feelings, and where parents can be helped to receive what their children have to say and perhaps make some necessary changes in response. It may even be a place where the whole family group has an opportunity to learn more useful ways to manage stress and anger, and skillful ways to communicate and work through differences in a way that respects each person's view, no matter what their age.

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