Contaminating Conflict: The Ugly, The Bad & The Good
I would never claim to be an expert on child psychology and development, but I am very interested in it. And not just because I'm a parent or that I coach parents and step-parents. My interest comes from a place of genuine care and concern for kids - how they're impacted by our behaviors and what we can do to positively influence their lives.
Due to some extreme circumstances, my ex and I battled through a season of conflict that lasted over three years. But prior to that, we were able to peacefully co-parent, attending our daughter's events and birthday parties together. So I know from personal and gut-wrenching experience the difference in how kids are able to manage life in both circumstances.
My daughter went from being a carefree, high-achieving preteen, to an anxious and troubled girl who seemed to struggle through every aspect of her life. At 22 years old, I still see the impact of those conflicted years on her emotional maturity and capacity to handle stress.
Hopefully you aren't dealing with extreme circumstances, like we were. But even common dynamics between divorced parents often comes with conflict that creates tension and anxiety for kids.
Let's start with the ugly…I know that no one wants to cause their kids harm, but sometimes we can unintentionally do just that (I know I have). So let's just admit that we don't always have it all together and that maybe we could use a little help…after all, parenting is a hard job!
For help in this area, one expert I appreciate is John Gottman, Ph.D. In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child he has opened my eyes to some tough realities. He states this:
"Just as a tree is affected by the quality of air, water and soils in its environment, the emotional health of children is determined by the quality of intimate relationships that surround them.
It hardly matters whether a couple is married, separated or divorced; when a mother and father display criticism, defensiveness and contempt towards each other, their children suffer. These children experience high levels of stress and various social, intellectual, behavioral and physical health problems".
Can you picture that ugly, withering tree as it struggles to survive in a toxic and unhealthy environment?
For me, this is heartbreaking - the stress kids experience and the harm that's caused when they're exposed to toxic conflict. Kid's simply aren't equipped to handle hostility and what they really need is for their parents - whether divorced, single or remarried - to work together.
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Before we dive into what we CAN do - let's explore two things that are NOT helpful:
- Avoiding or denying the truth. Sticking our heads in the sand and refusing to acknowledge reality is always a bad option. In fact, this will most likely intensify the problem. Instead, let's get real and face the reality that our behavior may be negatively impacting our kids.
- Beating ourselves up. Please know that my intention here is not to cause guilt - after years of beating myself up, I've learned that wallowing in guilt it is not productive. Instead, I want to encourage every parent to look ahead and take positive steps forward.
If you're struggling with either of these, think about how you can take a next step. You might need to dust of your journal, have coffee with a trusted friend to process your challenges or maybe even reach out to a counselor. Don't stay stuck in The Bad…move through to The Good…
According to Dr. Gottman: "It's not the interparental conflict itself that's so harmful to children, but the way in which parents handle their disputes. Studies show that children may actually benefit from witnessing certain kinds of family conflict, particularly when their parents disagree in a respectful way and when it's clear that the parents are working constructively toward a resolution".
Differences of opinions are normal, so completely avoiding conflict is unrealistic. And part of our job as parents is to teach our kids how to resolve conflict in a healthy way.
We need to understand that we can't control our ex, but we CAN learn how to effectively communicate and we CAN choose to respond in healthy ways that will promote peace!
Here are a few tips you CAN do to contain conflict and buffer your kids from harm:
- Keep it Professional. When communicating with your ex, stay calm and do your best to set aside your emotions. Stick to fact-focused information. It can help to think of your ex as a business associate - after all, you're no longer together romantically but you are still in the business of raising your kids. Short texts and brief emails can help even conflicted co-parents to peacefully pass information, while maintaining distance and keeping it professional.
- Help Kids Process Their Emotions. If your kids have already been exposed to excessive conflict, don't lose hope. An effective and loving way to help kids process negative emotions and conflict is by using emotion coaching skills. Our expert reports that children are happiest and most successful when they are listened to and understood. Emotion coaching is a healthy way to buffer kids from the harmful effects of conflict.
You CAN make a difference and influence peace and you CAN protect your kids from the toxic effects of conflict. How? By simply choosing to control your speech and by using conflict containment strategies. You CAN also be an example of healthy conflict resolution to your kids and help them process their own emotions.
Don't let conflict contaminate your home - take steps to clean up the ugly, avoid the bad and move toward good choices and good outcomes for everyone!
QUESTION: What CAN you do to promote peaceful communication your ex?