We know that how we treat our little ones is important to their well-being. And we’ve heard plenty about whether or not kids make us happy. Yet there’s a piece of the family puzzle that doesn’t get as much airtime: how our marriage affects our kids’ development. We don’t talk about it as much, maybe because we see the couples’ relationship as a separate entity.
But it isn’t. How we behave with our partners, both overtly and subtly, makes a big difference to our kids, even if they aren’t directly involved in the interactions at all. Our kids are always watching, learning, and modeling as they figure out the world. The dynamic between their two favorite people is a big part of that process.
Many studies show that high marital conflict is associated with emotional and behavioral problems in kids (although how a child responds depends a lot on her own make up). But lately researchers have seen that it’s not really the fact of arguing, but the way we argue that affects our kids.
Constructive fighting between spouses doesn’t necessarily hurt kids, and may even give them a boost in social skills because it allows them to see conflict resolution in action. When mom and dad listen to each other’s ideas and feelings and vet out differences (even when anger is involved), kids get training in empathy and taking another’s perspective. In fact, constructive fighting may actually preserve a child’s sense of security, since it sends the message that even while mom and dad disagree, they still love each other. Fights that turn nasty, on the other hand, are likely to scare and confuse our little ones — it’s here that researchers see kids reacting with “externalizing behaviors” like aggression or school problems, or “internalizing behaviors” like withdrawal or sadness.
Even the littlest kids pick up on tension between parents and it can make them confused, anxious, angry, guilty—the particular emotional reaction depends on the child. Indeed, research suggests that even babies are affected by our relationships, as they’ve been found to have more sleep issues when parents are having trouble with their marriage.
The bottom line: be conscious about how you fight, and process conflict with your child after it’s done. For example, if you and your partner have a tiff in his presence, say something like, “Mom and dad had some strong feelings. You know how you tell your friends if they do something you don’t like? Sometimes that happens for us, too. We might feel angry so we need to tell each other and figure it out together.” Even if your child ignores your explanation, it’s probably getting logged somewhere in her mind and will help her make sense of what just happened.
It’s a long-established truth that physical affection is good for kids. Touch and contact promotes health and happiness through baby and childhood; spending time snuggling, hugging, or rubbing your little one’s back is vital to her development.
But kids are also aware of contact between parents. It’s a topic that hasn’t been explored much by researchers, but certainly theories of psychology and family dynamics tell us so. For example, through what psychologists call “social learning,” kids watch how adults interact and generally tend to repeat what they see. If affection is commonplace, they’re more likely to be expressive themselves.
We are models for our kids’ future relationships and their concepts of love and intimacy. So yes, doting on them is important, but letting them see us doing this with each other could be too. And instead of slipping out the back door when the babysitter arrives for date night, it’s okay to tell the kids that — just like we carve out bonding time for them — mom and dad want special time together too.
The unified front
Especially when they’re little, kids tend to respond well when mom and dad have a team mentality and are authoritative (with lots of love and some wiggle room). The influential family therapist Salvador Minuchin called this the parent subsystem.
We don’t have to agree about everything (as with constructive fighting), but it may be more helpful to kids when expectations, rules, routines and so forth are consistent between parents. It makes them feel safe to know we have things more or less worked out — they can relax and be kids.
Division of labor
I have a sweet, generally loving and compliant little preschooler. But I realized we had to shift our home dynamics a bit when I recently told him it was time to pick up toys and he happily chirped, “That’s your job!” My jaw dropped. In our house, I typically whirl around straightening up before anyone even has a chance to pitch in. Why wouldn’t my son see cleaning as my responsibility when it’s my modus operandi to constantly be in tidy-up mode?
Children notice the caretaking, cleaning, working, and playing roles that mom and dad play and they certainly take those ideas forward with them as they grow up. Division of labor is not a bad thing — in fact, in our house it makes things run smoothly. Still, it’s helpful to think about our kids’ models of “mom” and “dad,” and make sure we’re comfortable with them. Does dad sometimes get the chance to be completely in charge and feel the confidence of being the primary go-to person? Does mom get enough fun, playful time with the kids? Whatever your roles on the home front, it’s nice to check in and make sure they’re working for all parties involved.
We certainly don’t have to be perfect or get it right all the time. In fact our kids probably learn a lot by seeing us work through problems in our marriage. And it’s important work — we all want healthy relationships. They’re good for us and they’re also good for our kids.
Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist and science writer. She authors the weekly “science of kids” column for Babble and is a regular contributor to Strollerderby. Follow the science of kids to keep up with the latest research in child development and parenting.