Be aware mentors: Unspoken or otherwise, kids sense their parents’ discord

mural-1331783_1280Written by Cindy Lamothe, The Atlantic

Summarized by Justin Preston

Family conflicts are communicated in a wide variety of ways. It isn’t limited to angry shouting matches between parents. Silent, “Cold War” nonverbal tensions can be just as distressing for children as a heated argument.

According to E. Mark Cummings, a professor of psychology at Notre Dame who has conducted decades of studies on the impact of marital discord on children, “Children are like emotional Geiger counters,” they are highly attuned to their parents’ relationship with one another and they very much understand the importance of nonverbal expression of their parents’ feelings to each other.

As stated by the author, “For many couples, holding onto a grudge—smoldering but not letting a disagreement erupt into a fighting match—may seem like the best way to deal with a conflict. But research shows this kind of discord can significantly interfere with a child’s behavior and sense of emotional security. When exposed to prolonged unresolved conflict, kids are more likely to get into fights with their peers at school and show signs of distress, anger, and hostility. They may also have trouble sleeping at night, which can undermine their academic performance.”

In research conducted by Cummings, children as young as preschoolers were so troubled by strong levels of family conflict that they struggled emotionally to the point of developing physiological symptoms such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure. Conflict between parents can also force the child into the role of mediator between their parents.

Indeed, in research conducted with over 230 families, nonverbal hostility, which includes acts such as dirty looks, sulking, or refusing to answer one’s partner, was found to be just as upsetting to their children as watching their parents verbally fight or lash out at each other. Further, children can even tell when their parents are only pretending to have resolved their conflict, as opposed to coming to a legitimate consensus on their point of contention.

Bottom Line for Mentors

As mentors, it is important to be aware of the impact of conflict between your mentees’ parents. Such a tense environment can affect your mentee in many ways. Children will often model the conflict resolution strategies utilized by their parents, which can perpetuate cycles of discord across generations.

If your relationship allows for it, you can use your time with your mentee to help them to develop positive strategies for resolving interpersonal conflicts. That can take the form of role playing, where you and your mentee navigate a hypothetical disagreement together. Integrating compromise, communication, and problem solving strategies can be particularly helpful.

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