Studies show that several million children between the ages of 3-17 are at risk of exposure to family conflict and violence each year. This can come in many forms such as seeing incidents of physical violence, property damage, or shouting and angry exchanges. It can also involve hearing threats or fights from another room or on the phone. Children may also see and sense the aftereffects of fights such as crying and evidence of fights. Importantly, children are very aware of the tension in the home and the mixed messages coming from their parents.
How do children react to these situations? We have asked this question of parents and countless times are told that younger children are not really aware of the situation and are quite happy and unaware of the stress at home. We humbly beg to differ. In our clinic, children as young as three-and-a-half and four years of age are able to draw their feelings of anxiety and express they are sad, or that Mummy and Daddy are sad. Children at six years of age have clearly explained how anxious they are in relation to a parent leaving the house on occasion and wondering if they will come back.
Children who are exposed to conflict from a young age become anxious and this can be seen in many different ways. Children can become obsessive and develop rigid rules to control their environment. They are always hypervigilant wondering when the next fight will occur. They never know what will trigger the conflict. In short, children coming from families where there is a volatile emotional environment stop feeling safe. They are always worried and can feel powerless. They can also worry that it is their fault these fights happen, as parents can fight over the children’s well-being or about them.
Children also feel the pressure to protect their family and hide what is happening from others. Keeping these secrets can be detrimental to the children’s confidence and self-esteem. They start to carry the weight of problems beyond their control from a young age and this can lead to increased depression and anxiety as they get older. Children can be very good at compartmentalizing and appearing fine in school or with friends. However, this can become more and more difficult for them as they get older and find themselves facing feelings that they cannot fully cope with and are very painful. Children feel very disloyal talking about their family problems and try and solve their parent’s conflicts and feel enmeshed in the situation. Feelings of anger, confusion, blame, guilt, humiliation and shame can develop and affect their own relationships and ability to trust others in relationships. It is very isolating to be in a family where there is conflict and children can feel emotionally abandoned. Children often start to report physical signs of stress such as aches and pains, crying, poor school performance, acting out, anxiety, poor concentration and sleep. Sadly, children also learn to dysregulate and can learn the same poor skills of resolving problems. They may replicate these as grownups and find it very distressing to unlearn these emotional patterns.
We can help raise happy kids and have happy families by working on our own skills as parents in conflict resolution. Managing to work through problems effectively and creating an emotionally safe environment is the most powerful way to teach your child a positive approach to relationships and build their self-confidence and self-esteem to face the world and their own relationships. It is important to seek help to work on parental relationships and create fair rules for disagreement and having a difference of opinion. It is essential to talk to your children about how they feel without fear of reprisal and guilt or consult a professional for your child behavioural issue in Melbourne. Capturing happy family moments are the building blocks of a loving home and can be one of the best gifts a child can get from their parents. Inspire your children to have fun, create lots of family time and activities and learn from children who can be the best teachers of being in the moment and enjoying the very simple things in life – the ones that truly matter.