“We don’t agree on much, but we want to protect the kids”
Does this sound familiar? Parental conflict in a family may be high whether you’re separating, living separately and apart under the same roof, or working through conflict as a married couple. And it comes as no surprise to you that the emotional health and well-being of your children is affected by out-of-control conflict under any of the above scenarios.
Depending on the personalities of you and your spouse, and the norms of the families you grew up in, it may be difficult to hold yourselves back from arguments- gone- bad – from mud-slinging, name-calling and other forms of verbal attack. Both of you may have perfectly rational reasons for the positions you’re defending. The problem is that as you battle it out, the children at are risk of being saddled with emotional harm that will impact their lives, now and even as adults.
How do you protect the kids when you’re in the middle of a conflict with your spouse? There is no one answer to this question, but you may find the following suggestions helpful;
- Make a mutual commitment to behaviour change:
To make a commitment means that you both acknowledge the problem as being real. No more denial or excuses. You both commit to each other to protect the children. As a sign of the level of your commitment to your kids, you may want to write out your agreement and your strategies, and date and sign it, to refer back to if and when the going gets tough.
- Get professional advice:
Often people resist the idea of having a marriage counsellor or other family professional involved in their personal affairs. They see it as a sign of weakness or of mental health issues. Let’s face it – human nature being what it is, and dysfunctional relationships surfacing in virtually every extended family – professionals who are trained to help people overcome emotional struggles and to diagnose unhealthy emotional responses and communication patterns can be extremely helpful. The ability to seek help from someone who is specially trained, and to be teachable in the sense of applying what that professional teaches, is a life skill and an important strength.
- Agree to disagree – then get help:
There are some issues you may honestly disagree on, and in and of itself, having various viewpoints can be helpful. When conflict leads us to refine a course of action and improve it, the conflict is proven to be positive. But the conflict process, if handled poorly, may be damaging to each other and the kids. Perhaps you’ve reached an impasse on a financial matter or a behaviour issue of a child. If you cannot agree on the course of action and the conflict deteriorates into a yelling match, then recognize the issue. It is okay to agree to disagree. Focus on ‘attacking’ the problem but not each other. Seek out a third party whose opinion you both respect, and look for solutions with that person. If you have to pay for an appointment with an advisor to help the two of you agree on a course of action, look at it as a wise investment.
- Physically separate the kids from the conflict:
If you find other measures haven’t worked to contain conflict and an argument is inevitable, at least be mindful of protecting the kids. Mutually agree that you will keep your voices low (if you can manage this!) and go to another room. Get a babysitter and take the dispute away from home. Go somewhere they cannot hear you. Don’t assume kids are asleep when they are in bed.
- Continue to support each other in front of your kids
Research shows that children are better off with healthy relationships with, and respect for, both parents. Anything you say that denigrates the other parent in front of your kids may negatively impact their relationship with that parent. In extreme cases, it may cause the kids to turn against or reject the other parent. When you hurt the other parent, you are hurting your kids. You have to ask yourself – do you want that? If the answer is yes, then see number 2 above.
- Clear space in your life for problem-solving and self-care
People are only designed to carry a day’s worth of problems at a time. If you can identify several problems needing your attention, then you’ll need to look at your calendar going forward to ensure you have time to deal with them. Be sure to build in time to care for yourself as well. Take care of the three basics – diet, sleep and exercise. It’s important to build a little bit of ‘awesome’ into your day, especially when you’re dealing with tough, emotional issues. Make sure you have a few friends or family members with who you can share your experiences with as you work to resolve the conflict.