There is no way to avoid it; every married couple at some point will have a disagreement, suffer from stress and undergo hardship. It is impossible for two (sinful) people to live in such close proximity and not irritate one another. While some people may make it months before getting on one another’s nerves, other couples don’t even make it to the end of the wedding day before disagreeing.
These disagreements, divisions and fights are difficult enough whenever there are only two of you. The impacts are only magnified once children are introduced to the picture. There is much pain and damage caused to children from homes in which the parents consistently fight. Even in homes where the fighting is sporadic, unless it is dealt with appropriately, there are consequences for the children.
Below I briefly outline seven ways in which warring parents can hurt children. This list is applicable to children of all ages. However, there will have to be some wisdom exercised in applying it to children of different ages. An eleven year old will be able to cope with more information and reasoning than a four year old – nonetheless, they both equally need to be cared for in the face of marriage conflict.
One prominent way to hurt a child during marriage conflict is to try and hide it from them. Children can sometimes be oblivious to what is going on around them, but if there is sustained conflict in the home this will not bypass a child’s attention. You may believe that you are being discreet but they will be able to pick up tension between fighting parents.
Given that they are aware of this, it is hugely upsetting and unsettling for them not to be included to a degree. To know that parents are fighting, but not to know what about or when it will end or how serious it is will deeply distress a child.
This does not mean that the child must be given all of the ins and outs of the disagreement. However, if a married couple are open with their children and acknowledge that they are sorting out issues there is some comfort for the child in that the issue is not being hidden from them.
Secrecy creates an atmosphere is mistrust. A child will be aware of strained relationships – acknowledge the strain. Indeed, you may even ask your child to pray for you.
Closely connected to secrecy is the problem of absenteeism, whether physically absent or emotionally absent from your child/children.
By being physically absent your children are forced to seek the equivalent relationship elsewhere. A physical absence is tantamount to abandoning your child/children. Now this does not mean you must leave work and be at home all day every day, but it does mean that your child/children know when you finish work and find you at home when they expect to. Much pain can be avoided if a child can rely on seeing their parents at home every evening/Saturday/dinner-time.
Many men also cope with marital conflict by refraining from showing emotion in the presence of their wife. This is emotional absenteeism, and causes yet more hurt to a child. Even though you may physically be in the presence of your child/children you mind, attention and focus is not. They are aware of this. Children desire and need affection from both their parents. They must be able to connect with their parents and develop their relationship with them. This is especially important if there is marital conflict. Children must be reassured that even if there is marital conflict, their parents’ feelings toward them have not changed.
3. Prolonging Conflict
Extended periods of conflict deepen the hurt that is experienced by children. It is paramount that as issues arise in marriage relationships that they are dealt with promptly. To ignore an issue will only exacerbate the problem. Even though all issues cannot be resolved in an hour, a day or a week – they must be dealt with. The longer a marriage conflict continues the greater the consequences in all areas of life. This means that the hurt caused to your child/children will be multiplied.
On the other hand, if a child who is aware of a marital conflict observes their parents dealing with the issue they will be offered hope that it will be resolved. It is important for parents to show their children that even though things may be difficult now, it will not always be so.
4. Unforgiving Attitude
Often prolonged conflict arises out of an unwillingness to forgive. Children will be distressed if they come to understand that their parent(s) is/are unforgiving. This will place undue pressure on them to perform perfectly as they fear making mistakes that will ‘cost them’. If they observe a parent being unwilling to forgive their other parent, they will naturally conclude that that same parent will be unwilling to forgive them.
To possess an unforgiving attitude will encourage your child to avoid you, fear you and dislike you. Being unforgiving is not a godly characteristic, and so they will not see a godly parent. This will create an atmosphere of fear in the home as it appears that each and every mistake will have permanent consequences for the child, just as it does for the parent.
5. Over Reliance
It is also possible that instead of putting too much distance between yourself and your child that you do the opposite.
Many people who find themselves in a marriage conflict situation rely too heavily on their children to provide the aspects of relationship that they miss. Parents seek comfort, friendship, connection and love from a child. This is an unjust demand to place on a child. They are unable, and should not be forced to offer the benefits of a marital relationship. Although this may begin simply with someone to talk to, or a friendly face to give you a hug at the end of a tough day, it is possible that it may develop into an abusive relationship (whether emotionally or physically).
This demand on a child will be confusing, painful and burdensome for them. They have not developed full relational skills yet, nor should they be relating to a parent in such a way. To deal with marital conflict in such a way will be very damaging to your child/children.
6. Unjust Demands
This emotional over reliance on children may of course develop beyond those boundaries to a number of unjust demands.
It is very easy to place extra demands on your child/children out of disappointment with a failing and difficult relationship. Due to the lack of satisfaction with your spouse you are keen to find satisfaction in your child. This is observable in demanding an educational standard beyond their ability, or a sporting standard beyond their ability, or just attempting to live your life through them. These demands can often be unspoken, but very real.
The damage caused by these demands can be far reaching and persist throughout a child’s life. There will be a consistent sense of failure as the child is unable to attain the unjust demands, a lack of self-worth will develop out of this failure and ultimately this may lead to illness and incapacity.
The fall out of placing unjust demands on children is that when these demands are not met children are punished.
It is important to note that there is a distinction to be found between discipline and punishment. Discipline seeks to correct, while punishment seeks retribution. A parent should discipline their child/children, but they should not punish their child. Punishment harms a child as there is no beneficial effect for them. The act of punishment aids a release of anger for the parent concerning the marriage conflict – however, this makes the child little more than a punch bag. This is not appropriate. This is physical abuse, bringing no healing to the relationship you have with your child.
Minimising the Hurt
The Bible clearly speaks about a child’s place in the family. They are to be submissive and obedient to their parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). There is rightly a hierarchy to the family.
However, this does not mean that children should be neglected, nor overlooked in family matters. Marital conflict, although primarily between spouses, has implications for the whole family and this must be acknowledged. Therefore, children should be taken into consideration when dealing with marital conflict. This is all the more important when it is appreciated that children are very aware of what is taking place in the home.
Fathers must carry the responsibility here (Eph. 5:22), but they must not act alone. Even in times of disagreement and difficultly the parents must speak to children together. Do not keep secrets (because they most likely aren’t secrets), nor keep children at arm’s length. Rather, acknowledge the conflict and show them you are dealing with it and forgiving each other, as God in Christ forgave you (Col. 3:13). However, this inclusion of children must be limited otherwise there is the danger of over reliance, unjust demands and consequent punishment.
Marriage conflict will hurt children, but we can minimise that hurt.
Note: I write not as a parent, but as a child of a broken home.