Family

Exposing Your Child To Constant Marital Conflict Is Abusive

Photo: Peopleimages.com - YuriArcurs | Canva
Upset child holding a stuffed animal while parents argue behind her

Some people try to tell themselves that their child witnessing constant marital conflict is not that harmful. On the contrary, this can cause terrible irreparable harm to your child.

The federal legal definition of child abuse is “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation.” Watching and hearing parents fight all the time is an obvious source of serious emotional harm to anyone who observes it.

A video camera in your house would see your child hiding in their room, trying to defend each parent from the other, and developing symptoms of anxiety (e.g., stomachaches, sleep disturbances, fears about safety and health, nail biting, skin picking, etc.). A video camera in your child’s brain would see the constant release of cortisol, villain-and-victim stories created by the child to understand the conflict, and seeds being planted for later lack of trust, intimacy issues, and self-esteem problems.

RELATED: 4 Common Conflict Styles That Traumatize Kids (& How Parents Can Handle Arguments Better)

How can you use this information to best protect your child moving forward, no matter what has happened in the past?

First, reconsider what you have been telling yourself about your marital conflict. I am not talking about bickering once in a while.

I am talking about yelling, name-calling, cursing, any violence at all (even toward inanimate objects), threats of leaving one another, increased substance use to cope with the violence, and/or the involvement of anyone else, like family, neighbors, or even police. I am talking about a situation where your child asks you to get a divorce or starts saying they hate one parent and trying to protect the other.

In these cases, your marital conflict is 100 percent considered abusive to your child.

This post is not meant to shame anyone but to cause at least one sad “Eureka” moment in a reader. Most people who are embroiled in marital conflict like this originally witnessed it growing up. If you witnessed constant fighting as a kid, do you have any of the following now?

From treating adult children of dysfunctional families in my practice, I can assure you that it takes as long to recover from witnessing marital conflict as it does for other forms of child abuse. There are the same consequences and the same inability to recover without extensive effort (usually from both therapy and medication for the anxiety/depression piece).

   

   

As someone who personally experienced severe marital discord as a child, I can tell you that it also influences your own later choices in partner, and many of us have a divorce under our belt. As a young adult who experienced constant parental fighting, it is very hard to understand that not all marriages have to be conflictual, so you ignore and minimize the conflict you get into with your potential spouse. This is how marital conflict is passed down intergenerationally even in people who are otherwise intelligent and self-aware.

RELATED: 12 Things A Childhood Trauma Therapist Is 'Begging Parents To Stop Doing'

Last month, I was at a street fair and saw a child with his parents. The parents were arguing about something and I overheard, “Because that’s just how you always are.” The child was imploring the parents to stop fighting. Anyone who has experienced public fighting between their parents can certainly empathize with how I felt at that moment. I wanted to save the child, who was a version of the child that I used to be. The child looked embarrassed and frantic. Onlookers were averting their eyes.

Unfortunately, because the parents were “only” verbally fighting, and preventing their kid from going to the street fair because they just had to “say one more thing” to each other, nobody could intervene. Had I gone over and said something, the parents would likely have become more enraged out of defensive shame, which would extend their conflict even more once at home. If the parents had been hitting each other, police could have been called (which also isn’t a panacea and is unlikely to materially improve the child’s life, but sometimes it can).

Thankfully, if you are reading this post, you may be one of the people who will change their marital situation, prevent your child from being further abused by witnessing your conflict, and help them recover from past abuse.

If you recognize from this post that you and your spouse are unintentionally abusing your child by having them witness serious marital conflict, you can IMMEDIATELY reach out to a therapist (I’m one, but there are a million others who accept your insurance on psychologytoday.com and if you need to start with something text-based you can use Betterhelp or Talkspace) to help you figure out what to do.

Be open with your therapist when you tell them about the conflict that your child is witnessing. Your child will not get removed from your home unless there is also violence or neglect; if this is the fear that is stopping you from getting into treatment, then just say “There is a lot of yelling and I am realizing it needs to stop.”

   

   

RELATED: What Your Kids Are Thinking When You & Your Spouse Fight In Front Of Them

Your therapist can help you figure out how to get into couples counseling and/or whether the marriage can be saved at all. When you have gotten your marital conflict down to a lower level, you will need to start your child in therapy so that they can deal with the anxiety and trauma that they have experienced thus far in their lives. Your child will not get removed from your home at this point either, because you will have already started the journey of getting your help, which is what you would tell your child’s therapist. I mention this “child getting removed from your home” thing because it is a secret fear that stops many people from confiding in therapists or bringing their child to therapy.

Nobody intends to abuse their child. When you see your child cowering in fear or crying, you tell yourself that it will be okay and you will make up for this in other ways. However, there are no other ways to make up for your child living in constant stress and anxiety. You do not want them to grow up and hate you, or worse, grow up and put their kids into the same situation they are in now.

Instead, you can be the great parent who has enough courage and self-awareness to end your child’s abuse cycle. You can even help them move forward to process and work through the trauma they experienced until now. This can be done despite your fear and shame, for the sake of your child. You can then be deeply proud of yourself for changing your child’s life for the better in a way that so many people feel too scared and stuck to do.

Note that you may be able to stop fighting for once and for all in your current marriage, with therapy. But if not, you can find someone with whom you never fight in front of the kids. This is my situation in my second marriage. For anyone who experienced a conflictual, angry home as a child and has now NOT replicated it for your kids, or who has STOPPED replicating it, you can understand how much of a victory this is! (As you know on the deepest level, just because your fighting isn’t “as bad” as what you saw growing up doesn’t mean it’s not still terrible for your kids.)

Think deeply about this post and allow yourself to process it for a few days if you are feeling triggered by it. Being triggered by this post is a positive thing that may lead to profound positive change for your kids. 

RELATED: 5 Ways We Violate Our Children's Boundaries Without Even Realizing It

Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This article was originally published at Dr. Psych Mom. Reprinted with permission from the author.