In our last article published on Friday the 28th October we started to look at the concern many people struggle with when finding a relationship difficult, mainly that the unhappiness may affect children. I suggested that it is really valuable to think about this because you can do a number of things to manage any impacts. I even think addressing the issues head on can help with improving relationships both with partners and with children.
Child Psychotherapist Juliet Lyons says:
“Protecting your children from abusive or frightening behaviour is important. But avoiding conflict for the sake of keeping the peace will not be helpful for your children in the long run. It is important that your children learn that it ok to stand up for yourself when you believe that your partner has got it wrong and that you can work through this. This can model for your children how to navigate your way through difficulties in relationships, how to express yourself, hear your partner and compromise”.
In the last article I encouraged doing a review of your relationship so as to gain a clear perspective on the areas of struggle. By doing this you should be able to recall actual events and situations and the details of what happened, when, where, why, how and who was there. The value of specific events is that they are much more valuable in resolving problems than thinking of struggles in terms of generics, for example I don’t feel loved any more, I am not cared for, there is no respect in this relationship..
Think about these events and bring to mind your children, were they there? did they say anything? ask any questions? show any behaviour that suggests they might have been aware of the conflicts? Again, identify specifics for example, they stopped doing homework, asked whether you are both ok etc. When you have done this think about how you responded to them, what do you think they understood, what did you want them to understand, what did you not want them to know and why, do you still feel comfortable with how you dealt with the situation?
If you are thinking about this with your partner it can be really useful because there will be two different perspectives feeding into the thinking around this but you should both agree that whilst it will feel very compelling to get drawn into the conflict again and about who was to blame this is not what you are attempting to do, stay focussed on the children and agree to agree that you will return to any unresolved issues between you at another time to be agreed.
“The language you use is very important. It is important to make sure that you are taking responsibility for your own feelings, aiming for an ability to express vulnerability, rather than blame and attack. Marshall Rosenberg has written an excellent book on this subject- Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”.
Hopefully you will now have been able to identify situations, behaviours, conversations that suggest whether your children may have been affected by your conflicts. Even if nothing comes to mind it is worth thinking about whether you have spoken to your children about conflict in relationships? Conflict is inevitable however what is important is to develop skills in handling them when they arise. And irrespective of whether you think your own struggles may have been affecting your children it can be really useful to remember that. In reading this article and thinking about this issue you are starting to change your approach to conflict and ultimately that is what will be important to your children not only because they will be reassured but because you are modelling skilful behaviour.
Safety must always be the first consideration. Abusive behaviours are not to be tolerated and if you are unclear about what is abusive take some time to read about abuse and bullying (our next article will focus on this) in the meantime and assuming you conclude that the conflicts are without abuse and you wish to speak to your children then the best way to get started is to ask them whether they have any concerns about conflict either in life generally or in the context of the family? If you have a specific event in mind then state it for example, when asked me whether we were ok after the argument I had with your mother / father I wonder whether my response was clear, whether you understood, whether you were left with any worries?
By starting this conversation you are showing that it is ok to talk about conflict, demonstrating that people may react in the heat of situations but that it can be useful to revisit conflicts rather than leave them unresolved, that talking about them may not resolve them immediately but is an important first step. Of course you may find it very hard to have these conversations, feel under pressure to be perfect parents or feel defensive, the important thing is to be aware of what is happening for you and remember it is always possible to say “I am not sure about that right now, I need to think and get back to you”. Ultimately you need to have a conversation where any concerns your children have can be understood and addressed. For example, some children can worry that they might be to blame for the conflict in their parents relationship.
In addition to helping your children feel reassured such conversations may help you to further understand the conflict in your relationship. Remember though you are the adults and you have full responsibility to manage your conflicts in such a way that your children can feel secure, learn about conflict and learn about how to manage them skilfully. In finishing Juliet recommends:
“Of particular importance is that you don't endlessly argue over your children in front of them and that you find a way forward together during times when you can fully express your feelings without fear of disturbing your children”.