When parents come to talk to me about a troubled child or teenager, I often find it helpful to explore whether or not their marriage is causing at-risk issues in their home.
It’s no coincidence that difficult marriages create difficult children. Children and teenagers want their parents to be happy, and they want their parents to be together. When things are going wrong in the parents’ relationship, children are often the first to sense that Mommy and Daddy are not getting along. Even if parents say that they are only arguing behind closed doors, children can still sense that something may not be right.
How parents learn to manage disagreements between themselves can make a difference in their teenagers’ lives. Unresolved conflict has a tremendous negative impact. It directly affects the two parents involved, as they continue with their day-to-day routine. And when parents become preoccupied with their own marital discord, teenagers can feel rejected, depressed, and isolated.
Marital conflict affects teenagers in various ways. First, conflict between the parents tends to both change the mood of household interactions and shifts the parents’ attention to the negative behaviors of their children. Second, parental conflict leads to parents issuing confusing and threatening commands to their children. Third, children who are exposed to harsh discipline practices at home (which tend to coincide with a negative and hostile relationship between the parents) are more at risk for aggression, internalizing by withdrawing, and depressive symptoms.
In addition, I have found that when teenagers are exposed to high levels of conflict between their parents, they don’t get used to it. They become more sensitive and reactive to it, which causes many of the symptoms of at-risk behavior. Even moderate amounts of parental conflict can wreak havoc on the lives of children, disrupting their sleep and causing negative feelings in their day-to-day lives.
In many instances, parents are unaware that they might be using their children to channel the anger they feel toward their spouse. This phenomenon, called “triangling,” is a very dangerous pattern of behavior that can have serious implications for children and teenagers.
Here is how triangling works. Suppose a wife is angry with her husband for not being affectionate toward her. If she is unable to express her feelings to her husband in a direct way, she may unwittingly begin to use her children to communicate to her husband her feelings of displeasure and anger. For example, she may turn to her daughter in front of her husband and say, “Oh, Daddy seems very tense today and I guess he has no time for the family.” In this case, the parent is unable to negotiate her own needs and inappropriately begins to involve her child in a private marital issue.
The child who is caught in a triangle like this has become an inappropriate conduit for the expression of the mother’s anger towards her husband. When this happens, children can develop feelings of disillusionment, fear, insecurity, and vulnerability. They also may feel that they have to take sides because they can’t manage the internal tension and the anxiety by themselves. In these cases, they may see one parent as mostly bad and the other parent as mostly good. This is damaging to children because it reinforces an attitude by which they view the world in a “black and white,” or an “all or nothing” way, rather than with a more balanced view of good and bad in most people.
Here are some of the signs that you are engaged in triangling:
Do you want your child to talk to or do something to your spouse? Do you talk about your spouse to your child only in terms of the other’s negative qualities? Do you or your wife blame your children for your problems? Do your children tell you that they feel anxious around your spouse? Do you think your child can bring peace between members of your family?
Parental conflict affects children in varying ways, depending on their age. For example, teenagers around the age of 15 or 16 are most likely to involve themselves in their parents’ battles. Younger children may keep their feelings hidden and may only show signs of depression in late childhood or early adolescence. Other children may adapt to parental fighting by becoming “too good.” To stop the fighting, they try to become perfect children. These model children try to do everything right while walking on eggshells, fearing their family will collapse if they make a mistake.
Unfortunately, more and more children seem to be growing up in families with marital conflict: “…the number of divorced Americans rose from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996, and the trend is so well established that, 40 percent of all children born in the 1970s and 1980s — today’s teenagers and young adults — have experienced the breakup of their family through divorce.”* To this large number, add all the children whose parents are unhappy with each other but who don’t divorce. It’s not hard to see that a substantial segment of the population grows up in very unhappy homes.