What impact is conflict having on our children?
Resilient as children may be, evidence from science increasingly demonstrates how sensitive and absorbent their brains are. An article in The Scientific American reports on research at the University of Oregon where MRI scans found “that infants from families who reported more than the usual levels of conflict in the home were more sensitive to aggressive or angry voices. While asleep, these babies had an uptick in brain activity in response to sentences read in an angry tone of voice, with most of the activity clustered in the parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and stress.“ Rather than making these children more resilient, exposure to conflict makes them more vulnerable. They are more easily distressed and have greater difficulty being soothed. Long term, this can lead to mood instability and adult problems with impulsiveness, anger management and misreading of environmental cues. These problems then lead to problems as a result of poor decision making that affect work and love relationships.
Although it is easy to see that violent angry conflict between parents can harm children it may not be so obvious that lower level poorly resolved conflict damages them. Children are like seismographs that study the underground activity of parental relationships, just like experts study earthquake activity. We shouldn’t be blind to what may seem more mundane harms to children when parents conflict or have poor relationship quality. Even when there isn’t physical violence between parents, words, gestures and neglect have similar impacts. What’s tragic here is that most of these harms are preventable.
Chilliwack has a number of resources that help with this problem. For instance, our schools pay a great deal of attention to social-emotional development, from kindergarten to Grade 12 emphasizing respectful relationships. Chilliwack also has Ann Davis Transition Services. It goes beyond the traditional mandate of women in transition assisting both men and women with anger management, stress reduction, mental health problems, marriage and separation. We have an active early years committee of the Chilliwack Child and Youth Committee dedicated to building support systems for families of children birth to five. I was at a meeting of Chilliwack City Council recently and was impressed with the warm, respectful tone of our mayor to all who were presenting or giving input at the meeting. We have many public supports to civility and gentleness in relationships in this community. The question is, how do we insure this level of civil discourse is imported into our daily family life?
You will have read ads in this paper for The Couples’ Boot Camp. These courses teach parents how to relate in ways that help them meet their needs and provide great models for their kids. Several communities of faith support this work and refer couples to it. The Couples’ Boot Camp teaches parents the skill of listening with empathy, how to resolve conflict healthily and to decipher the codes we use for communicating our needs.
It’s surprising that these skills aren’t mandatory for anyone having children because they provide another opportunity for parents to learn ways for interacting that will lower stress in family environments.
As much as we can keep young brains from worrying about conflict between the big people around them, the more their minds are free to be curious about the mysteries and beauty that surround us. And this is how it should be!
Dr. Rob Lees is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry of Children and Family Development, in Chilliwack.