Much of parenting is about preparing children for the life ahead. And one of the most important parts of that preparation is teaching children how to recognize, cultivate, and maintain healthy relationships. We have talked previously about how parenting must be a joint plan. However, there will be disagreements between parents. Our children’s ability to identify healthy relationships for themselves largely depends on the environment they grow up in. Parents fighting or treating each other with contempt provides a negative baseline from which a child can interpret relationships in the future. Modeling is the most effective learning tool we have and saying one thing and doing another is a common parenting mistake.
Most parents make a conscious effort to talk about everything from drugs to bullying. We tend not to put the same effort into guiding our children to know what a healthy relationship looks like. We might think it is obvious. First teenage love is a challenging time. Talking about it when your child has a partner is difficult as they will be very protective. Therefore it is best to talk about and model it early. A survey led by Richard Weissbourd, co-director of the Human Development and Psychology master’s program at Harvard, reported that many teens and young adults are unprepared for caring, lasting romantic relationships and anxious about developing them. 70% of the 18 to 25-year-olds who responded to the survey reported wishing they had received more information from their parents about a romantic relationship’s emotional aspect. We have talked previously that all your child really wants is a meaningful relationship with their parents. This will then move to their partners as they get older. It might be that you don’t have a partner or have left a toxic relationship, this is no barrier to this. It shows that their are alternatives to toxic.
Short and Long-Term Effects of Parents Fighting in Front of Children
Disagreements are part of every relationship. The damage isn’t disagreeing but how you and your partner handle the disagreement. Both in front of your child and beyond. Couples that resort to name-calling, silent treatment, and uncharitable remarks during disagreements, risk negatively impacting their child in the short and long run.
The following are some of the short and long-term effects of growing up with parents who fight.
- Pressure to pick a side. When parents are fighting, children are tempted to pick a side. Usually, they find it difficult to do so because they love both parents. This results in a dilemma that piles on the child’s stress from watching parents fight.
- Aggression and risk-taking. The young mind of a child does not have the same coping mechanisms that an adult mind has. Parents’ constant fights take a toll on their minds and leave them exhibiting aggressive behaviors in school and taking unnecessary risks. Or they may withdraw entirely and keep to themself.
- Health problems and a drop in academic performance. The conflict at home can preoccupy children so much that they lose concentration and start doing poorly at school. High-conflict environments also leave children vulnerable to disease. This is because stress and lack of sleep compromise their immune system, leaving them open to bacterial and viral infections.
- Problems with intimacy and relationships. Self-regulation, empathy, and communication are essential in maintaining relations with others. These mechanisms are impacted in children who grew up in high-conflict families, making it impossible for them to function when needed. Physiological regulatory systems such as the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system are compromised. These systems help us respond to a perceived threat and help with braking, enabling one to keep calm and regain balance.
- Poor cognitive performance. A 2013 study published led by Benjamin Hinnant, Associate Professor at Auburn University, found that the stress associated with living in a high-conflict home may impair the fluidity of a child’s cognitive performance. Decreased cognitive performance affects the child’s general intelligence level, processing information, paying attention, and solving problems.
Qualities of a Healthy Relationship
One of the mainstays of a healthy relationship is mutual respect. The National Institute of Health (NIH) defines a healthy relationship as one in which you feel good about “yourself around someone else. You feel safe talking about how you feel. You listen to each other. You feel valued, and you trust each other.” So these are qualities that we need to explain to our children. It might not be possible to model these at all times within our own life. However, our children must realize that this is what they should be aiming for most of the time. A good partner’s quality is not how cool they are but how both parties treat each other. Below are some qualities of a healthy relationship.
- Every relationship, platonic or romantic, should be based on mutual respect. Sometimes, time can make people drop some values upon which the relationship began. Whether you’ve been with each other for one year or ten, respect should always be mutual. It should show in words and, more importantly, deeds.
- Without trust, there can’t be vulnerability. Partners or friends who trust each other open up to each other so that they can get the help or reassurance they need. Trust takes time and has to be earned and protected. Showing trust and allowing your children to trust you models that they should expect this from any partner.
- A healthy relationship requires honesty at all times. Keeping your partner or friend in the dark breeds distrust if they find out. When honesty is at the core of a relationship, both parties feel safe and assured with each other. You and your child should have an honest relationship.
- Empathy is what informs reactions in a relationship. Both parties can look at things from each other’s perspectives. They try to put themself in each other’s shoes to understand what the other person is feeling. This can be the difference between responding insensitively and sensitively.
- That one is in a relationship doesn’t mean they are no longer an individual capable of doing things outside their partner or friend. In a healthy relationship, boundaries are respected. This is very important. Respecting each other’s boundaries shows that both of you recognize each party’s autonomy.
- A relationship where one party has to get by on scraps of affection isn’t healthy. Both parties should know how to show each other affection and how best each party likes to receive it. Affection can take many forms, including gifts, thoughtful gestures, help around the house, physical touches, or verbal reaffirmation.
How to Talk to Your Child About Healthy Relationships
Many parents want to prepare their child as much as possible as he or she approaches teenage years. Below are some tips on how to talk to your child about healthy relationships. Remember, it is best to have these conversations when they are not in a relationship you are concerned about.
- Start by explaining what a healthy relationship looks like. When strong emotions are involved, it’s easy to forget what one deserves in a relationship. This can leave your child open to tolerating toxic behaviors from people they’re involved with. The best way to minimize such a blindspot is to give your child a solid explanation of what a healthy relationship looks like. It will act as a benchmark they can always fall back on when things get complicated.
- Explain what an unhealthy looks like. In an unhealthy relationship, the signs are not always glaring. This is because unhealthy relationships are not completely toxic. There are moments of connection and affection here and there. These sporadic moments of love can convince your child to stay in a relationship that isn’t healthy. So provide your child with an explanation of what an unhealthy relationship looks like. Let them have a good understanding of what physical, sexual, digital, and verbal abuse are. Reflecting on relationships seen on TV and films will help with this.
- Talk about the difference between infatuation and love. Your teenager is new to what they are feeling and might not know the difference between love and infatuation. Ian Kerner, a licensed psychotherapist and sexuality counselor, explained that infatuation is “usually marked by a sense of excitement and euphoria, and it’s often accompanied by lust and a feeling of newness and rapid expansion with a person.” While “Love tends to be something that’s cultivated over a long period, where you’re really getting to know somebody, and you’re building an attachment. You’re also creating emotional safety, and you’re able to demonstrate vulnerability with that person.”
- Stick to language that doesn’t assume any sexual orientation. When talking to your child about relationships, avoid language that assumes your child is heterosexual. Using language that removes the possibility of other sexual orientations makes it difficult for your child to open up about their sexual orientation. But using inclusive language tells them that it’s okay to be anything else other than heterosexual.
- Offer support and know when to seek help. At the end of your talk, make sure to let your teenager know that they can come to you for help whenever they need it. Teenage relationships tend to produce dilemmas, and your teen should know that they can come to you. Also, seek outside help if you are worried that your child is in an abusive relationship.
Ways to Model a Healthy Relationship to Your Child
As a parent, you have to consciously choose to model a healthy relationship for your child and follow through. Not only with your partner but also with your child. These are opportunities to model and describe what a healthy relationship between two people looks like. Below are ways to do that.
- Argue in healthy ways. No matter how healthy your relationship is, there will be times you’d disagree with your partner on something. What is important is how you handle disagreements. In fact, disagreements present you with opportunities to model real-life to your child. To argue healthily is to listen to your partner’s grievances, understand their point of view, then air your own. This shows that you respect your partner’s point of view and are open to hearing them. When you disagree with your partner and argue, don’t be afraid to talk through with your child what they might have seen. Explain why you felt that way. How your response what not correct. What you have done to improve it. Just as problematic for your child to think a bad relationship is normal, if we only present the best of a relationship, it will be a bar that our children can not reach.
- Make adjustments to spend time together and alone. Sometimes in a marriage, especially where children are involved, it can be easy to turn both your attention to your children. But your children need to see that you’re special to each other. That no matter how busy life gets, you still make adjustments to spend time with your partner. Also, it teaches them to make a life outside their partners. This will show that when they get a new girl/boyfriend not to lose their connections with their current friends and spend all their time with their new love. You need to model this in your own life if you want them to also do it in theirs.
- Share your emotional needs. Sharing your emotional needs is another way of being there for each other. You can help each other unburden emotionally through conversations and reaffirmations. And your children need to see you modeling this. After your conversation, you can make a point of thanking your partner in front of the children for providing emotional support.
- Show affection. Your children look to you to discover the full range of affection and the different ways to show it. So make a point of using every opportunity you get to be affectionate with your partner. Affection can be physical and verbal. Kisses, hugs, cuddles, gifts, and massages are all affectionate gestures. It also means talking positively about them.
- Share responsibilities. Sharing responsibility is a great way to push back some gender roles that reinforce some stereotypes. Responsibilities should be based on competence, likes, and dislikes. If your partner likes cooking and doing the dishes more than pruning the front lawn, that’s fine. Share responsibilities depending on whatever works for the family without gender factoring into the decision.
Final Thoughts on Modeling and Describing Healthy Relationships
Wary of fighting and causing their children stress, some parents may choose to withdraw simply because they see that as the safer option. This is not a good practice either, according to E. Mark Cummings, a psychologist at Notre Dame University. “Our studies have shown that the long-term effects of parental withdrawal are more disturbing to kids’ adjustment,” says Cummings. “Kids understand hostility. It tells them what’s going on, and they can work with that. But when parents withdraw and become emotionally unavailable, kids don’t know what’s going on. They just know things are wrong. We see over time that parental withdrawal is actually a worse trajectory for kids. And it’s harder on marital relationships too.”