Conflict is a normal part of family life, be it in intact families or those that live separately. What matters is how parents handle and resolve conflict.
Whether you are living together or not, if your children are witnessing and living with continuous parental conflict, then there is a pretty good chance that this situation is affecting them in various ways.
You are your child fiduciary, it is to you that they look to for guidance and protection especially when the conditions in which they live are unpredictable, rocky and uncertain.
These situations breed insecurity, anxiety and high levels of angst which in turn affect how they think, feel and behave.
If parental conflict is persistent, your child’s behaviour is likely to change, so here are some indications that they are indeed being affected by the animosity and discord.
• Behavioural problems: perhaps the most common, most noticeable change and can include but not limited to aggression and disruptive behaviour. Children will often express stress and the lack of adequate support through behaviour as opposed to words.
• Your child is quick to anger!
• Sleep disturbances. Your child is finding it difficult to fall sleep or remain asleep through the night whereas this was not the case before. You may also find that, depending on your child’s age, he or she is sleeping more than usual and finds it difficult to get up.
• Psychosomatic symptoms. Your child maybe suffering from physical pain (stomach aches and headaches being the most common) which has no apparent medical basis. The pain is very real to him/her. This could be caused by the stressful situation in which they live.
• Underachievement at school and getting into trouble. This could be down to your child’s inability to concentrate and focus as he or she is preoccupied by the conflict and tension in his/her home
• Low self-esteem and/or is exceedingly self-critical.
• There is regression. Your child is now showing behaviour more consistent with his/her younger self; behaviours that they had outgrown but have now reverted back to – may include bed wetting for instance.
• Where your child is no longer interested in things that she/he used to enjoy doing or participating in.
• Your child has increased fears such as fear of the dark or might become very clingy towards one parent for fear of losing him or her too (in the case of divorce).
• Your child’s eating habits have changed. There maybe an noticeable increase or decrease.
We, as adults and as parents, can and do at times underestimate children’s capacity to understand feelings and relationships. Speaking with them and answering their questions as much as possible can go a long way in helping them deal with the situation.
Also, and this may sound odd, giving them permission to speak with you or someone they trust can also open doors for communication to happen spontaneously hence avoiding a whole lot of problems down the line. Just letting them know it’s ok and letting them see that you, as the parent, can handle and contain their fears, worries and anxieties allows them to come to you.
Soila is a Child Development Psychologist, accredited Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) parenting practitioner, Certified Trauma Specialist and trained Family Mediator. She works in private practice mainly, but not exclusively, with families going through divorce and separation.
Soila is a member of Resolution and a graduate member of the British Psychological Society.