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Child Caring

Baby suffers when parents fight frequently

[My partner and I] argue all the time and my 6 month old son is usually present. How much is this affecting him? I want to leave my partner but he refuses to let us split and won't move out because he thinks we can get better. I'm just scared of the damage this could do to our son.

From: Kat, Birmingham, Alabama

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Dear Kat,

Your instinct is right: Babies are affected when parents argue loudly and repeatedly in front of them.

Babies are so closely attuned to us that they learn to read our signals. When we get tense, say, in anticipation of disagreeing with a spouse, they get tense, too. It's not that your baby understands what you're saying; the raised voices, and the tone of the voices becomes over-stimulating to a baby. And I don't just mean that the baby starts to cry; there can actual medical implications, such as raising a baby's blood pressure.

Research at the Gottman Institute in Seattle shows that continued exposure over time can lead to a range of negative outcomes for children that include aggression, withdrawal, depression, irritability, psychosomatic illness, regression, sleeplessness, insecurity about relationships, and inability to manage conflict.

Quite a list, huh? If there is physical violence, the outcome is exacerbated.

Seems like you have to make a decision to either agree to stay and, together, get some professional help to put in the work and effort to make this relationship healthy, or you need to end it. Parents should never feel that they can't disagree or go through spells of being unhappy with each other. The key is knowing how to disagree in ways that are respectful of our differences and still supportive of each other. In fact, when that happens, it can actually be a positive role model for our kids.

But as I've said before in answer to questions like this, if you read this wonder about the way you and your spouse fight in front of the kids, it's time for counseling. Kat, I would certainly put you in that category. Don't let this drag on.