Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.

Walking through an airport recently I watched a young couple engaged in a very heated debate (fight!) as their two young children watched helplessly. Staring at one another, pointing fingers, they seemed oblivious to the fact that others around them were uncomfortable, including their children.

When in the middle of a conflict, nothing much matters except what is happening in the heat of the moment. Anger, and other intense emotions, often narrow our awareness and even make us oblivious to those around us.

Most of us know enough to restrain our conflicts to behind closed doors, within the privacy of our homes. However, we forget that others are watching us there as well: our children.

I spoke with a woman recently who shared with me the following story.
 
Dear Dr. David. I'd like you to write about the impact of marital conflict on children. While my husband and I are currently separated, I watch the impact of the way he treats me on our children. I notice them try to interrupt our fighting, ask questions about why we are separated, and even try to get in between us so we won't fight. While I feel terrible for the state of our marriage, I feel even worse for our children.

What can be done to protect our children from our emotional struggles? Does our separation and fighting affect them as much as I think it does? What impact does it have on the long-term well-being of our children? Thanks for your help.

This woman has raised a critical issue, one which we often forget: children are the innocent victims of the on-going conflict that leads to separation and divorce. They notice far more than we want to admit. Far from being insulated from the battle, they see and hear what is going on and it is destructive to them. Let's consider a few of the ramifications ongoing conflict has on children.

First, children are like sponges. Though children react differently to marital conflict, all are impacted. Couples must realize that even the conflict that isn't seen or heard can be felt. The tension in a hostile environment is contagious, just as positive feelings can be. Recognize that everything you say and do as a couple has a ripple effect onto your children.

Second, notice the impact on your children. While you cannot control everything that happens in your marriage, pay close attention to how conflict impacts your children. Here are just a few of the unhealthy ways children may react to conflict between parents:

  • Some children tend to act like little adults, literally telling their parents how to get along. They may insist their parents "get along!" and even offer ways for them to do it;
  • Others run and hide, hoping to not see or hear the tension in their home. Many children create a "safe place" in a corner of their room, or perhaps outside in their favorite play area;
  • Others act out, drawing attention away from the quarreling parents. Some children unconsciously deflect the tension and anger onto themselves so that their parents won't fight between themselves;
  • Others act like the "clown," humorously creating a distraction to the conflict occurring in the home;
  • Still others work overtime to be "nice" so they will add no additional tension to the home. These children vow to never cause trouble and strive to be "perfect" in order to cause no stress for their parents.

Each of these reactions is destructive to their well-being and growth. Whether a child is acting out, causing problems for themselves and their parents, or being "perfect," they are not engaged in normal play and the curious exploring of their world that creates a healthy personality.

Scripture tells us "children are a reward from God…blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them." (Psalm 127: 3,5) Subjecting children to ongoing conflict in the home is emotionally damaging to them and dishonors God's gift to us. 

Third, manage the conflict in your marriage. Because your child's emotional growth will be hampered by ongoing conflict, (not to mention your own!) become intentional about managing it, insulating them from it and eliminating it. Again, just because your children cannot see you fighting, they can still feel the fight. They know when their parents are not getting along, and of course feel it more intensely when it leads to a separation or divorce.

Fourth, purposefully create a time to talk about what is happening in the home. This does not mean you will involve your children in the details of your marital conflict, but does mean you will answer age-appropriate questions. You should keep them informed of any changes that will impact them, such as a separation or divorce, giving them ample time and opportunity to process their feelings.

Finally, don't be afraid to get additional support or professional help. Many psychologists/ counselors have special training in working with children. Don't be afraid to reach out for help. Also, at a time when it might be tempting to pull away from church involvement, consider the resources available at your church for supporting you, your children and your marriage. Other families are experiencing the same issues, and many would appreciate support from you as well as giving support to you.

Please also feel free to contact me for further advice on this issue, or for information on Marriage Intensives at The Marriage Recovery Center.

November 17, 2009

Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.