In an ideal world, marriage would be continually blissful and if there just happened to be a disagreement, it would be a trite little thing resolved in moments. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in. In our humanness, we are guaranteed to face conflict at some point in time.
Conflict within the home, especially, can have a lasting impact on our children. How we deal with this conflict and what we choose to do with it can determine how our children are affected by it.
Should we tell our children what’s going on?
We can expect to deal with disagreements in marriage and have marital conflict, let’s define ‘marital conflict’ as an ongoing strenuous point in your relationship. Although we might have ongoing disagreements, many times we feel conflicted about when to tell the children or even if we should.
Your children need the heads up if the conflict has been going on for a period of time and it is disrupting the marriage:
- To the point of going to counseling
- Sleeping in separate rooms
- Moving to separate places
Parents often think they’re doing a service to their child by hiding everything from them and one day surprise them with the news of one spouse moving out. This can be earth shattering to a child. Imagine sending your child to school one day and everything is fine and the next day they need to face school with the news their parents are separating.
Talking to your children in an age appropriate manner can help relieve some of the stress. They don’t need every detail but having parents on the same page with their children can be stress relieving.
How do we talk to our children about what is taking place within the home?
It’s important to realize that children rely on the home as being a stable environment. This helps your child thrive. Marital conflict does not mean you’re going to ruin your child, but there must be clear communication by parents.
There needs to be a clear message from both parents that the conflict is strictly between the adults and that your child is NOT at fault in anyway.
Sharing with the child, dependent on age – less details when younger, more when older – the basics of the conflict, what you as parents are doing to work through it, and goals for an outcome.
This is best done when everyone can sit down as a family. When children can hear the same thing from both parents and have assurance from both parties, they are less likely to feel caught in the middle. This gives the child a sense of safety and security and allows the child to focus on their developmental goals – making friends, engaging in school and other activities – and not be consumed with the parent’s relationship. This is a vital piece for children.
Here are a few examples of dialogues for different ages:
Elementary: Remember this is best done with both parents present.
“Susie, mom and dad want to talk to you about something that is going on. Mom and dad are having some trouble getting along and so we are going to sleep in separate rooms for a little while so we can work on getting along. This is between mom and dad and it is no one’s fault. We want to you to keep playing and having fun. If you have any questions you can ask either one of us.” (It’s best to have both parents talking during this discussion). “We love you and we’re so glad you’re a part of our family.”
High school: Again, best done with both parents present.
“Tommy, we have something we need to share with you. Your mom and I have been not getting along for some time and are having a difficult time coming to a resolution. We are in counseling and seeking help so we can have the best marriage possible. In the meantime, we are going to be sleeping in separate rooms. This is not your fault or your brother’s fault. This is between your mom and I. We are here for you no matter what and if you have any questions you can feel free to ask at any time. We love you and we’re so glad you’re a part of our family.”
Here is a more detailed process on how to talk with your children:
Allow your child to ask questions. This is a scary time for them. By allowing them to ask questions:
- It reinforces that they are very much a part of the family
- Communicates they are not a part of the problem
- Shows that there is open communication
Your child may or may not have questions immediately come to them. Let them know that you understand this and are available to them when those questions arise. Some parents may face children, specifically teens, who become distant or annoyed with the conversation.
This does not mean your child is disinterested but simply is using a defense mechanism to help themselves cope with the news. As a parent, be careful not to let this determine a response of ‘they’re not interested’, ‘they’re fine’, or ‘they don’t care’. None of those would prove to be accurate.
Don’t make promises you cannot keep.
For example, don’t promise your children that everything will be back to normal or that a spouse will come back home if they have chosen to leave. There is no way you can guarantee this, even if it is what is hoped for. Being age appropriate honest with your kids will give them a greater sense of security than if you promise things you cannot deliver.
Put yourself in your child’s shoes.
If you were 6 or 8, 14 or 17, what would you need from your parents during this time? There’s an age old adage that says ‘hindsight is 20/20’. Your child may not know what they need specifically from you at this time. Help them put words to their needs by putting yourself in their shoes.
Keep nasty comments to yourself.
They are not helpful in any way, shape, or form. They are destructive not only to the child, the relationship with the child and the other spouse, but to you and your child. If the conflict arises to such a degree, there needs to be a clear understanding that defaming the spouse in front of the children is simply not okay.
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