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Family Conflict and Children

Posted: 04/ 5/2012 3:30 pm

San Francisco is in the news again, and unfortunately for the wrong reasons. It's amazing that this spectacular community, with its vibrant and creative energy, seems to occasionally lose its equilibrium -- and I'm not talking about earthquakes.

A high-profile public official pleaded guilty to a charge of false imprisonment (a domestic violence misdemeanor) on March 12, 2012 and was sentenced on March 19, 2012. All of these charges are related to family conflict that reportedly occurred in his home on New Year's weekend. It's been a soap opera San Francisco residents are following daily as the details unfold. The legal system has articulated particulars of the sentencing, and public opinion will determine the civic leader's political future (as in ... will he or will he not retain his position?).

It's been reported that the adult conflict happened in the presence of their small child, and I am disappointed to write that this important element of the story is receiving very little attention. So while the family of this city administrator and the San Francisco community sort out the implications of the charge, discussing the impact of family conflict on the development of children is absolutely necessary.

Family conflict is a huge factor negatively affecting the growth of children under the age of 5. For children that young, family turbulence can interrupt or delay important developmental stages. Even if a small child has reached a significant growth benchmark, it is not unusual for a child to regress when exposed to ongoing, intense family clashes. (For example, a child who is potty-trained may regress to diapers or start bed wetting.) It gets even more complicated when highly conflicted parents maintain a family environment where the very young child doesn't feel safe or protected by the adults who are supposed to nurture him/her. In cases that extreme, the imprint on the child's development may last for years and require therapeutic interventions at some point.

We also know that educators see the impact of family conflict in the classroom even before families are willing to talk about it. Children from troubled families perform "considerably worse" on standardized reading and mathematics tests and are much more likely to commit disciplinary infractions and be suspended than other students (Scott Carrell, UC-Davis and Mark Hoekstra, University of Pittsburgh, American Economic Journal January 2010).

Dr. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, devotes an entire chapter in his important book, "Brain Rules," to family and work stress. He writes very poignantly of his own experience as a teenager and how the conflict of his parents affected him, negatively impacting his high school achievement. He then puts on his scientific hat and states: "The simple fact is that children find unresolved marital conflict deeply disturbing. Kids cover their ears, stand motionless with clenched fists, cry, scowl, ask to leave, beg parents to stop. Study after study has shown that children -- some as young as 6 months -- react to adult arguments physiologically, such as with a faster heart rate and higher blood pressure." Children in these circumstances are on emotional overload because of the chronic stress which distracts them from their schoolwork, and their ability to achieve suffers.

We can all agree how important it is for parents to stop fighting in front of their children. At Kids' Turn, when separating families come to us for our workshops, we do not assume parents know how to change their behavior to stop family conflict. Generally, it is their behavior that led them to separate in the first place, and changing adult behavior patterns and habits is very difficult.

Ours is one program of many across the country designed to help reduce conflict in families. And although Kids' Turn specializes in helping separating adults and their children, other programs -- parent education, anger management, domestic violence interventions, couples counseling, websites, books, etc. -- are all resources available to parents who want to improve family circumstances for themselves and for their children.

If any good can come from the attention given the San Francisco public official and his family, perhaps it is to shine a light on a problem needing our attention -- helping improve circumstances for children in highly conflicted families.