I wanted to ask you something that I am too ashamed to ask my son's doctor.
My husband and I were seeking a divorce, and I found out I was three months pregnant. He told me to abort, but I didn't. I cried my entire pregnancy. Now my son is 10 months old, and we fight almost every day. He is right there, and we are screaming, yelling, and I am crying. My son looks terrified and starts crying -- he even wakes up crying when we are fighting. Now, even if we are not, he still wakes up terrified. How am I harming my child? I am telling my husband we need to divorce; he doesn't believe in it when a baby is involved. Please help - I really don't know what we are doing to my precious boy. Thank you so much.
From: Norin, Plano, TX
Oh, Norin, it breaks my heart to hear you describe your little guy as "terrified." That your husband believed in divorce before there was a child but not now, sadly, is setting up your son for a negative outcome. You are already seeing it. Of course, divorce is not the only solution; keep reading.
Research shows that even babies are harmed when parents fight in front of them. In his book, "And Baby Makes Three," John Gottman writes that babies are "profoundly" affected by parents' fighting. Here's one very concrete reason why: it raises baby's blood pressure.
Over the course of childhood, exposure to parental fighting can lead to a range of negative outcomes that include aggression, withdrawal, depression, irritability, psychosomatic illness, regression, sleeplessness, insecurity about relationships, and inability to manage conflict.
Fighting doesn't have to be physical or loud (although that is always worse in terms of outcome for children). Infants are so closely attuned to their caregivers that they pick up on facial expressions that signal distress and on our moods. If you are always tense, worrying about the next marital outburst, your baby senses and absorbs your stress, according to research by Arminta Jacobson, a professor at the University of North Texas. In fact, she's the director of the Center for Parent Education at UNT, which is in Denton. I know distances can be deceiving in Texas, but isn't that near Plano? That Center might be a really good resource for you, both in terms of some counseling (divorce is NOT the only solution) and parenting.
Dr. Phil (not someone I usually quote, I know) tried to raise awareness of the dangers of fighting in front of kids. He calls the problem a "silent epidemic" because people are afraid to talk about. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, devoted readers, I don't want anyone to read this and think I'm saying you can never disagree with your spouse in front of your children. The problem is not that parents fight at all, it's the way they fight. If parents repeatedly put each other down or put the kids in the middle -- and please notice the use of the word, "repeatedly" -- children feel threatened, insecure, and unhappy. On the other hand, if parents are supportive and tolerant of their differences and able to resolve them respectfully, it can provides a positive role model for conflict resolution.
But I would say this: If you're reading this and it's making you wonder about the way you and your spouse fight in front of the kids, it's time for counseling.
I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.