Keeping children out of conflict: What it really means not to argue in front of them?
" Children pick up on far more than their parents often realise. They notice stuff that matters to them "
If you ask those not currently in the difficult swamp of having relationship issues then they may find the idea of not arguing in front of children a more simple concept. For those who are finding each day with their partner difficult, or waiting for the right time to break the news that they want out – or on the other side of that conversation, it can be a minefield. The ideal dream of keeping the tension away from the children has morphed into just trying to avoid them witnessing open warfare.
You may feel that you cannot possibly stop your children seeing the conflict between you and your partner when every single conversation sees you at opposite ends of what you thought was a simple thing. You may have just been talking about who was going to run the hoover round, take one of the children to a birthday party, or who was going to do the shopping and it has yet again turned into the same old issues. Nothing seems to just be about what you had intended to start talking about these days. Plus it seems that no matter how nicely you try to talk to your partner they are hell bent on turning any conversation into a point scoring exercise. Or they have simply disengaged completely and are trying to talk to you as little as possible. You ask yourself yet again how on earth you can remain living in the same house for the immediate future.
You’re exhausted by it all; frustrated by the inability to communicate on even a ‘small details’ level. You can see your children’s behaviour changing too. They seem more rude and uncommunicative than normal and are prone to rage about the slightest thing. You can’t quite work out how you ended up at this place and you feel like there is no end in sight and you can’t see the way out at all.
Feeling like this (or seeing bits of yourself in this) is something we hear from lots of people who first contact us for help in mediation. It is really common and it is an upsetting and frustrating situation to be in. This is the first in a series of blogs aimed at giving practical tips and suggestions for reducing conflict experienced by children whose parents are either separating, on the verge of separating, or just experiencing relationship difficulties and haven’t made a decision yet about whether they’ll separate.
Children being exposed to conflict doesn’t just mean out and out screaming at each other by their parents in front of them (or within their earshot – just because they’re upstairs or in bed doesn’t mean they can’t hear you). It includes children noticing that mum always rolls her eyes or makes a stressed face when Dad mentions money. It also includes Dad taking the mick out of mum whenever she asks for help around the house. They can see she doesn’t like it and it has a mean feel about it. It also includes what you say to your children when the other parent isn’t around. Little digs, unkind comments, putting them down and generally not being respectful. It all lets children know that this is not a positive and happy relationship right now. There is something going on between mum and dad and it doesn’t feel nice.
Children pick up on far more than their parents often realise. They notice stuff that matters to them. If children can notice that Father Christmas uses the same wrapping paper as their parents, that there is there favourite chain restaurant over there, and that you appear to have moved their stuff in their room then they can notice when the two most important people in the world to them aren’t right. They pick up on your emotions, on you feeling stressed and on comments and looks passing between you.
It would take a superhuman effort to hide the fact that you are at the end of your tether right now and avoiding exposing children to conflict doesn’t mean that you have to pretend to be a robot. It’s OK for your children to know that you are scared, angry, upset or very tired right now. Emotions and feelings happen for everybody and naming them and acknowledging them can be a really good way of helping children to manage their own feelings and emotions.
Where the balance tips over is where you are telling your children (either explicitly or with your actions or words) that the reason you feel like you do is because of their other parent. If you’re giving out the message that you’re upset and it’s their fault then that is where children can start to feel confused about why two people they love so much seem to be in conflict with each other. And if those two people, their parents, now don’t like each other, what does it mean for them – a product of love between those two people?
Even relatively young children can have an internal dialogue going on as they wonder things and you may not be party to this. They may turn things over in their mind wondering what is happened – at their own level of understanding. The questions and the wondering if it is their fault or what it means for them can come a long time before anybody has a conversation with them about the fact that mummy and daddy won’t live together any more.
If you know that things have been difficult between you and your partner lately then try following our top five tips:
1. If you know your emotions are showing then name then and acknowledge them to your children. You can reassure them it’s nothing for them to worry about but you have just been a little tired/worried/upset lately.
2. Try not to react if your partner says something that pushes your buttons. Your children can pick up on eye rolling or grimacing. If you can try to agree that you will discuss issues away from your children and you can always try to put some rules into place about what to do if an issue crops up in front of the children. You may feel your partner won’t stick to this but if you stick to it they are more likely to follow your lead.
3. Notice your children and what is going on for them. There may be subtle behaviour changes that suggest they are picking up on things. Be available to them to talk to and reassure them that they are safe and loved by both of you. If you feel it’s appropriate then you can acknowledge difficulties between you and your partner and explain in an age appropriate way that sometimes mums and dads have arguments like children do with their friends.
4. Don’t put the other parent down in front of your children (if you can only do this privately with a trusted friend or family member). Even little comments said in jest can worry children and mean they feel conflict between their parents.
5. If you are really struggling to manage your emotions then talk to your doctor or look at finding a recommendation for a therapist so that you can talk through your emotions and what’s happening in a supported place with a trained professional.
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