All families have disagreements, but when arguments are resolved calmly, children learn to express their concerns and feelings in a safe, peaceful fashion. When squabbles escalate to full-blown fights complete with yelling, hurtful words and name-calling, they are detrimental to children. Little ones need to understand that it’s never okay to treat other family members with disrespect. When children frequently witness fighting in the home, the effects can be negative and long-lasting.
Children who see their parents fighting or arguing in front of them learn that fighting is the way to solve problems, says Arthur Robin, Ph.D., director of psychology training at DMC Children’s Hospital in Detroit. Children imitate their parents, so in turn, they will solve their own interpersonal problems with siblings and peers through fighting and arguing. This aggressive behavior can result in trouble at school or in the community. A child’s friendships ultimately suffer when he isn’t equipped to handle disputes in a constructive manner.
Many childhood behavior and emotional problems are triggered by fighting between adults in the family, according to Robin. If a parent shouts or slams a door, it scares the child. When parents fight or argue in front of their children, it makes the children insecure about their status, safety and welfare. They become emotionally distraught because the people they love are fighting. This often triggers anxiety, depression or episodes of acting out. Some children withdraw because they find it difficult to express their emotions. If a child receives a poor grade on a test, and her parents get into an argument later that evening, she might feel guilty and believe she’s at the root of the problem.
Children learn how to form interpersonal relationships and parenting skills in their home environment. If they grow up in a family that frequently fights, they learn to fight in their intimate relationships as adults, Robin says. They will typically fight with their own children in the future. These behavior patterns might not be evident for several years, warns Robin. Children often develop trust issues. They see adults hurting one another, and, as a result, they steer clear of relationships because they’re afraid of being hurt. Many therapists who work with adults spend a lot of time helping them undo the damage that occurred during their childhood years when they observed their parents fighting.
Consistent emotional distress often translates to physical problems. When a child’s parents fight over money matters, he feels helpless and becomes anxious, worried and upset. These feelings could manifest as a stomachache or a headache. When children are upset, they might not want to eat. Conversely, they might choose to overeat as a coping mechanism. Worry often results in a child having trouble falling asleep at night. Rather than getting a restful sleep, she replays the conflicts of the day over and over in her mind. Physical symptoms often cause children to miss school or special activities with friends.