Staying together for the sake of your kids could actually be doing them a lot of harm, research proves
New research claims parents who stay together for the sake of their kids, could actually be doing them a greater harm writes Tanya Sweeney
Almost without fail, a celebrity split is followed by a press statement confirming that the couple in question will always have the welfare of their child as their first priority. When Scarlett Johansson split from her husband Romain Durac, the actress was adamant that there would be no name-calling or mud-slinging as they forged ahead with the split.
"As a devoted mother and private person and with complete awareness that my daughter will one day be old enough to read the news about herself, I would only like to say that I will never, ever be commenting on the dissolution of my marriage," she said in a statement. Only days later, rumours of a heated custody battle surfaced, despite the couple's best intentions.
Elsewhere, the much-lamented demise of Brangelina was, according to reports, precipitated by a series of 'blazing rows', including one over their son Maddox. Last September, it was revealed that Jolie filed for divorce from Pitt following a potentially violent altercation on a flight.
While arguments are part and parcel of being in a relationship with someone, having them in front of one's children certainly isn't.
Actress Laura Dern has a rather interesting take on the matter, insisting that it's healthy for couples to argue in front of their offspring.
"I don't think kids expect the fairy tale any more," the actress explained.
"A therapist would now tell you that it's good to fight in front of them as long as they can see the resolution. This is being human - you get angry, you get hurt, and you yell and say things you don't mean - and then you circle back and you're accountable. Otherwise, kids hit adulthood and they don't know how to deal with conflict."
TV presenter Fern Britton was in agreement, noting in an interview that couples who don't row are "boring", and that she's glad her kids witness the normal part of a real relationship.
However, new research puts paid to the idea that the odd parental row can toughen kids up; in fact, it claims that feuding parents who stay together for the sake of their children could be doing greater psychological damage than they would by splitting up. A study by York University found that while divorce is bad for children, the situation before parents separate can have a significant impact. Compared to children of parents that are together, the children of divorce, according to the study, have 30pc worse non-cognitive skills involving behaviour, emotional issues and peer problems, and perform about 20pc lower for cognitive skills like reading and maths. "Inter-parental conflict may be even more harmful to a child's development than parental dissolution itself," suggests Gloria Moroni, who headed the study. "(The differences) are not necessarily due to divorce itself. Most of the damage is given by pre-divorce circumstances and characteristics of the family."
When couples argue in front of their children, there are some messages the children take away. First, they see that their parents are either not well able to control their emotions, or they don't care if the negativity they're releasing distresses anyone watching them. This can make children feel anxious and unimportant.
They also learn that it's more important to release your own discomfort immediately, never mind when it is or where you are.
They also start to see that responding to your own discomfort immediately is more important than thinking about how to solve the problem that upset you.
"The emotional and psychological repercussions for kids who see their parents fight all the time are significant," affirms parenting expert Stella O'Malley. "Watching a fight unfold is a very disturbing experience and human nature is such that you are prepared to do almost anything to calm the fighters down. But when the fighters are your parents, your whole word crumbles - the two most important people in your world are at odds with each other and nothing feels right. Continuous conflict can often lead the kids to believe that nothing and no one can be trusted.
"The complicated nature of fighting often means that one parent is convinced they are right and so they often set about telling anyone and everyone their side of the story,' she adds. "Sadly many parents are so keen to vent their frustration that they often forget that their kids are in the room and can hear every word. But kids don't want to hear about the nasty side of their Mam or Dad. Until they reach their teenage years kids prefer to believe that their parents are just great; this suits their innocent world-view that God is in his heaven and all's right with the world. If they are subject to detailed reasons exactly why the other parent is a useless fool it just causes emotional turmoil and insecurity in the child. The impact of continuous fights in front of children is that they lose the confidence and positivity that every child deserves to start life out with. As the years go by we all become a bit jaded and cynical about the world but for a child to experience that at a very young age is damaging."
According to psychotherapist and relationship therapist Bernadette Ryan of DSix Counselling, one of the most common arguments in front of kids has to do with inconsistent parenting.
"Quite often, parents haven't really had a good talk about what kind of parents they both want to be, what each person's role is, or how they speak to each other while raising their children," she explains. "We learn how to parent based on how we were parented ourselves, and there's a general sense that 'my way is the right way', and that can cause a lot of arguments. Without wanting to put people in boxes, the mother's role generally is about security, nurturing and comfort, while a father's role can be more about showing the child the world. It can lead to friction."
Ultimately, O'Malley suggests that a couple who isn't getting on, keep counsel: "Parents can commit to developing some self-control and making sure that they keep any vitriol until the children aren't present. This might take some time. However, most parents say that they would readily take a bullet for their child - developing self-control is difficult but with some commitment and effort, it is very doable."
Adds Ryan: "The thing is, we're all human. There are normal everyday arguments, and in my experience unexpressed anger or rage can actually do more psychological damage to a child. If kids never see their parents being human, that can be a little scary for them. If they sense an underlying seething resentment that never gets articulated, that can take its toll as well. It can be good, in some circumstances, for parents to disagree, but the important thing is that they apologise and make up."
Similarly, there is a way to manage the breakdown of a marriage to ensure minimal psychological blowback for youngsters.
"It's very important that the parents keep everything crystal clear for the kids as many kids blame themselves for the separation," affirms O'Malley. "This will be difficult as separation is often a complicated and disturbing experience. But parents have to keep in mind that the children are dependent on you to provide as seamless a transition as possible. Some kids can come through their parents separating without feeling negatively impacted at all while others can suffer long-term hurt. Clarity, consideration and mature behaviour will lead the way for the children to emerge relatively unscathed from the process. Divorce or separation doesn't have to be a negative experience - often it can be the best thing that happened to a family - but continuous conflict and fighting is almost always damaging for the children."
"It's also really important to give each child time to go away and to come back to you with questions, and to allow them, older kids especially, to have their own feelings around this," adds Ryan. "Parents want everyone to be okay and don't want their kids to act out, but it's equally important for kids to be able to express their anger around these difficulties."