It hardly matters whether a couple is married, separated, or divorced; when a mother and father display hostility and contempt for each other, their children suffer. That’s because the tenor of a marriage—or divorce—creates a kind of “emotional ecology” for children. Just as a tree is affected by the quality of air, water, and soil in its environment, the emotional health of children is determined by the quality of intimate relationships that surround them. As a parent, your interactions with your child’s other parent influence your child’s attitudes and achievements, her ability to regulate her emotions, and her capacity for getting along with others. In general, when parents nurture and support each other, their children’s emotional intelligence flourishes. But children who are constantly exposed to their parents’ hostility toward each other may encounter serious risk.
Through our observation and laboratory work with families of small children, my research colleagues and I discovered that certain kinds of marital discord had profound effects on the children’s physical and emotional health, as well as their ability to get along with peers. Our data show that children raised by parents whose marriages are characterized by criticism, defensiveness, and contempt are much more likely to show antisocial behavior and aggression toward their playmates. They have more difficulty regulating their emotions, focusing their attention, and soothing themselves when they become upset.
With no role models to teach them how to listen empathetically and solve problems cooperatively, the children follow the script their parents have handed them—one that says hostility and defensiveness are appropriate responses to conflict; that aggressive people get what they want.
Children need to regulate their emotions in order to focus attention, to concentrate and learn, to read other people’s body language, facial expressions, and social cues. Without these components of emotional intelligence, children enter social and academic settings at a disadvantage.
Studies show that children may benefit from witnessing certain kinds of family conflict, particularly when their parents disagree in a respectful way and when it’s clear that the parents are working constructively toward a resolution. If children never see the adults in their lives get angry with one another, disagree, and then settle their differences, they are missing crucial lessons that can contribute to emotional intelligence.
The key is to manage conflict with your child’s other parent so that it can become a positive example rather than a harmful experience for the child. Obviously, this is easier said than done—especially considering the way only spouses (and ex-spouses) can ignite each other’s emotions. Still, recent research provides some clues for how parents can relate to each other in a way that protects and benefits their children.
John Gottman — Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child (pp. 138-146)
Many people assume their behavior towards their children’s other parent have no impact on the child—or they fail to care about the enormous impact it has. If they only knew the long-lasting negative consequences of their behavior they would be certain to fix it, right? Guess again.
In his many books on relationships, expert John Gottman discussed how “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” were like four predictable steps where the couple’s relationship cascades into the disintegration of their marriage. They are: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. If the Horsemen have entered your house and reside in either parent, I might suggest seeking a couple’s counselor who is trained by the Gottman Institute for couple’s counseling. I have been to their Level 1 training and their material is phenomenal.
Most of us assume our relationship with our child’s other parent is a separate entity than our relationship with our children. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Many years ago when I went through a divorce, my children were the ripe age of three years old and one-and-a-half years old. That seems like a lifetime ago when I look back on it now, but I’m certain for my children it still feels like yesterday. I had to learn early on, that no matter what conflict occurred between their mother and me, I still had to show their mother kindness and respect because (a) that’s the kind of person I wanted to be, (b) she was still their mother whom they loved dearly, and (c) it wasn’t their fault that we divorced. I remember reading Gottman’s books early on in the process and that helped me tremendously. Of course, I didn’t do everything perfect, but overall I am blessed with how my children have adapted throughout their lifelong process. I give all the credit to them.
In closing, here are some suggestions in the book from Gottman for managing your marital conflict that will help your children.
Don’t use your children as weapons in marital conflict.
Let your kids know when conflicts are resolved.
Establish networks of emotional support for your children.
Use Emotion Coaching to talk about marital conflicts.
Stay engaged in the details of your children’s everyday lives.
No matter what age your children may be, remember that your interactions with their other parent has an enormous impact on their overall health and well-being.
Have a blessed day.
Peace and Love,