Family

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

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Dad, mom and young daughter hugging while laughing and talking

Your children are watching and learning from you.

You probably learned conflict from your family of origin and your children will learn the same from you.

There is demonstrable evidence that children raised in high-conflict homes absorb these lessons. The consequences can be devasting, including:

  • An increased likelihood of depression into adulthood.
  • An increased likelihood of conflict with peers.
  • The potential for worse academic performance.

And many other potential issues.

If you find yourself in a high-conflict relationship, especially if you are fighting in front of your kids, all of this conflict could have an adverse effect on the emotional well-being of your children.

You might want to ask yourself this: Are you going to change the pattern? Will you try to change even if your spouse doesn’t? 

Can you accept the consequences to your children if your unhealthy relationship dynamic continues?

RELATED: 6 Conflict-Resolution Strategies For Couples Fighting Like Cats And Dogs

Not all family conflict is bad for children 

Intimate living makes conflict inevitable, but conflict doesn’t have to be harmful to children. Frequency, intensity, breadth, and form of the conflict create the foundations for harm to each other and to bystanders — like your children.

Active, engaged repair of conflict is the antidote.

Lots of studies clearly demonstrate the negative effects of persistent parental conflict on children as they develop and after they have become adults, spouses, and parents. 

High-conflict couples leave lasting effects on their children’s mental, physical, emotional, and scholastic well-being. These couples eventually get divorced and as one teenager said, “They both got what they wanted and are happier, but we the kids paid the price.”

RELATED: Call Me A Bad Mom: My Parenting Looks Different Because It Is 

Divorcing isn't always the answer

Kids learn how to be adults and how to be married from their parents. I believe that a mediocre marriage (low conflict but little love and connection) is better for kids than divorce. High-conflict environments can have major harmful and lasting effects.

Parents who get divorced usually say, “the kids will be better with happier but divorced parents than with unhappy intact families.” Mainly, this is just an attempt to let themselves out of responsibility. 

RELATED: 7 Steps To Stop Fighting With Your Partner

Solving the problem with your conflict style is often the better option 

Low-conflict, disconnected couples can change the course of their marriage with a good therapist and a commitment to the process. Terry Real, a renowned expert in couplehood, says to trainees and couples: “Once you get to the starting line, figure two years of work." 

I’ve seen couples who, after three, five or 10 years of marriage counseling, are still not at that starting line. 

High-conflict couples who have remained married for that many years have typically moved from one “referee” to another. Any therapist who is engaged as a referee and stays in that role, in my opinion, should find a different therapeutic population because couples work is the most difficult thing for a therapist to engage in.

I categorize the common high-conflict mistakes (harmful to the children) parents make as obvious, less obvious but well-known, subtle, and insidious.

Those of you who have been concerned about whether your relationship is verbally or emotionally abusive will recognize many of these behaviors and some will have wondered if these patterns affect their children. The answer is "Yes!"

Do you have the courage to be honest with yourself?

If you dare, go through the categories below and note the ones that are common in your behavior. Then note the ones you observe in your spouse's behavior.

If the number is greater than five for both of you, it's time to explore solutions for conflict management.

RELATED: 20 Signs You May Need Marriage Counseling

The four categories of potentially harmful conflict

1. The obvious conflict 

This category encompasses potential physical harm and severe emotional distress. It includes physical violence, making threats, pushing or shoving, yelling and screaming, and throwing or destroying objects.

2. Less obvious but well-known conflict

While these forms of conflict might occur regularly in some households, they aren't necessarily as widespread. They include barring an exit, physically restraining someone, pounding on a locked door, using profanity, name-calling, leaving the premises of chasing someone who has separated themselves from a situation, threats of divorce and more.

Drinking alcoholic beverages for self-soothing might also be seen as a symptom of this kind of conflict, along with threatening to involve others in the situation and constantly blaming the other partner for problems.

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3. Subtle forms of conflict

These involve tone of voice and choice of words, primarily. They can include overt sarcasm, avoidance of responsibility, expressing disdain in front of the children, finger-pointing, talking over one another, becoming defensive, changing the subject to escalate an argument and denying something happened — even when you both know it did.

​4. Insidious and non-verbal conflict

These are not necessarily harmful if they aren't persistent, but they can include eye-rolling or exaggerated sighing, stonewalling an argument or withdrawing, muttering, and sleeping in another room for no apparent reason.

RELATED: How To Embrace The Deepest Part Of Conversation — The Silence Between Words

Kids are learning from you

It’s hard to confess to yourself that your behavior is problematic. It might be easier to name all your spouse’s bad behavior, but still not a comfortable exercise. 

One offers a path toward a better relationship, one does not. 

Even high-conflict couples can at least put out the fire temporarily. How? It takes two to light and maintain conflict. 

Stonewalling is a “losing strategy” but announcing to your spouse when you’re not in the middle of a fight, what I call a “kitchen table talk," that you will no longer complain, criticize, comment, or control your spouse no matter the provocation for a specific time period. 

Start with two days. 

This is a proclamation, not a contract. It’s a one-way decision that requires nothing of your spouse. You also will eliminate all the less direct ways you engage in or start a conflict. Don’t say this out loud at first, just do it for two days.

RELATED: 3 Common Parenting Myths That Can Brutally Hurt Children 

How to break the cycle of conflict

Another option is to seek a well-regarded, experienced therapist with conflict experience who you can see either alone or with your spouse if they’re willing. Don’t just choose a counselor from the panel of your insurance company. You’ll probably have to pay out of pocket anyway since most insurance doesn’t cover marital counseling. 

Look as carefully as possible at what therapists say about themselves.

Then call them and ask questions directly about the high-conflict experiences. Confess your bad behaviors, not your litany of what’s wrong with your spouse. 

Immediately eliminate any therapist who recommends divorce without at least a few sessions. 

And ditch the referees early. Therapy is hard work. Don’t expect a good therapist to do even 10% of the work. He/she will collaborate, direct, and demand that YOU are doing more work than they are.

Remember, it’s all about protecting and raising children in a low-harm environment to ensure that the pattern stops with you.

RELATED: 3 Toxic Parenting Styles That Turn Kids Into Narcissists

William "Bill" Meleney is a Washington state-licensed mental health counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.

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