Temperament and Parenting

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B-DI News

Child Talking Back/Marital Conflict

Marital Problems and Children's Behavior

For a long time, counselors and therapists have been aware that children whose parents continue disagree can develop a wide range of the emotional and behavioral problems. In fact, marital problems have been found to be the best family predictor of childhood behavior problems. That is, when a child's behavior problem cannot be attributed to a temperament-environment misfit, to hyperactivity, abuse, or a learning problem, and a family problem is suspected, the marriage is the most likely source of the difficulty. Exactly why and how marital problems affect children so badly is not known for sure, but research points to the following patterns:

* Boys are more strongly affected by poor marriages. However, girls are by no means immune to ill-effects, but may show their suffering in less obvious ways.

* Boys, it is known, are more likely to 'act out'.

* One researcher found that antisocial behavior in nine to 12-year old children was much more likely to be from marital discord which occurred before and during marital separation than from the separation itself.

* More recent evidence suggests that open arguing and hostility between spouses are more damaging than an unhappy marriage where parents are apathetic towards each other.

Researchers and therapists have suggested that open hostility is likely to cause problems for the following reasons:

Modeling
Marital arguments may cause children to reject their parents as models. Marital conflict may interfere with imitation of the same-sexed parents. Marital disputes may cause children to imitate the hostile behaviors of their parents. A number of other suggestions have been made which link marital conflict more indirectly with problems in parenting. It is assumed that a change in parenting styles may occur when a marriage is in trouble.

Parenting Can Be Affected
Parental disagreement about child-rearing may be a main source of trouble and often leads to marital breakdown. Generally speaking,therapists find that disagreements about discipline or household rules, for example, can cause emotional distress and behavioral problems in children. This is likely to be even more the case when disagreements are open and the child feels that he or she is partly the cause of the problem.

Parents of 'difficult' children, beware! Sometimes parents who are experiencing marital distress may see their children as more difficult or troublesome than they really are, creating new problems. This might occur when a parent is depressed, which is the case with many unhappy marital partners. Some believe that children's misbehavior can serve the function of distracting a couple from their own problems. The family inadvertently lets a child misbehave or fails to discipline or help the child. For the same reason, a couple might scapegoat the child. Or, in other troubled marriages, one partner may team up with the child against the other partner.

All of these dysfunctional patterns can have adverse effects on children's behavior and emotions. These are just a few of the ways in which marital problems are believed to affect children. Unfortunately, many families are experiencing these difficulties. While we would like to take a positive approach, we must warn families that marital problems often do not disappear with time. Generally, both partners must recognize the existence of the marital problem and try to overcome it themselves or seek marital counseling. Sometimes an individual partner tries to protect children by refusing to get involved in arguments. While the strategy may benefit children in the short term, it is likely to be detrimental to the marriage in the long term.

A more satisfactory way of resulting conflicts must be found. Changing negative patterns of marital interaction can be exceedingly difficult, but is highly rewarding when successful. Families experiencing these problems, especially when they have a child with a 'difficult' temperament or behavioral or emotional disorder, are strongly urged to get some help. Start by asking your family doctor for a list of marital therapists or call your local family services association. As well, many psychologists are qualified to do marital counseling.