The Way Parents Fight Affects Kids' Self-Esteem (In All Kinds Of Families)

05/01/2015 11:57 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

Children soak up everything they see, feel, and hear. Parents may believe they are giving their children all the love they need, but they send a conflicting message when they fail to reconcile their own relationships with their former partners. There are plenty of things parents can do to protect their children from the damaging impact of long-term conflict during and after divorce.

When parents argue excessively and for too long, it can leave children feeling insecure and fearful. Even if it's not the parents' intention to cause harm, ongoing conflict can threaten a child's sense of safety. Truth be told, parents forget that children are vulnerable to feeling in the middle between their parents' arguments. High parental conflict can send them into high alert. As a result, children may have difficulty sleeping, concentrating on school or social activities; or be plagued with fear and anxiety about their future.

5 Tips for resolving disagreements with your ex-spouse constructively:

1. Use self-control and only let out some of your anger. If you're frustrated or angry at your ex you don't have to say everything you're thinking. Your children won't benefit from you showing your anger openly to their other parent so be careful what you say in front of them. Kids don't want to hear negative things about either one of their parents.
2. Avoid name-calling and blameful comments such as: "You never pick up Kylie on time." Instead say what you want and state it in a positive way such as: "I would appreciate it if you'd be on time picking up Kylie since she worries you're not coming and gets upset when you're late."
3. Resolve conflicts in a positive way. Learn the art of compromise and apologize when you do something wrong. Being cordial and businesslike is a good place to start. Take a short break if you feel flooded.
4. Keep your children out of the middle and don't make them a go-between to avoid loyalty conflicts. Communicate clearly and directly to your former spouse - not through your child.
5. Develop a parenting plan that's geared to the level of conflict between you and your ex-spouse. For instance, the higher the conflict, the less flexible the plan. Discuss hot-button issues such as holidays, finances, and problems that may arise with your children's school work or with friends. Seek professional help if needed, such as mediation or counseling, if you believe you won't be successful doing this on your own.

Many studies show that being raised in a high-conflict divorced family can cause children to have low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness. It can leave him or her with the ultimate feeling of rejection. Many kids internalize the breakup of their family and feel it is their fault. Logically, many kids understand that the dissolution of their parents' marriage didn't have to do with them. Often, parents take great pains to make sure their children understand they aren't to blame for the breakup. But kids often experience a disconnect between logic and emotions, leaving them with low self-esteem.

Growing up, a child may see his or her parents fight constantly, but sleep in the same bed every night. They might have complained about one another, but acted upset when the other went away. Sometimes parents don't fight openly in front of children, but tension and anger seethe beneath the surface. These contradictions play a powerful game with a child's head. When a child is left with unexplained contradictions, he or she will try to explain them to themselves, often coming up with incomplete or incorrect conclusions. Thus when kids can't understand the turmoil around them, they tend to internalize this pain and blame themselves. This is true for children who are exposed to high conflict in both divorced and intact homes.

Let's face it, marital conflict can have negative consequences for children whether their parents are married or divorced. In a longitudinal study spanning over many years, renowned divorce researcher Paul Amato found that conflict in intact families was associated with emotional problems in children. Amato points out that many of the problems children of divorce face begin during the pre-divorce period since it is a time of increased conflict for most parents. Thus, an increase in emotional problems experienced by children after divorce may well be due not only to dealing with their parents' divorce but marital conflict that led up to it.

Learning new skills to protect children from the harmful effects of parental conflict during and after divorce is worth the effort. According to divorce expert and therapist Gary Direnfeld, "Not all separations are alike and not all parental separations spell disaster for their children. The social science research advises that the most salient factor determining risk for poor developmental outcomes for children of divorce is the level of conflict between their parents."

Unfortunately, the outcomes for children growing up in high conflict divorced families aren't always favorable. For instance, fifteen year old Olivia's insecurities are far more than that of an average high school student. They reveal the deep anxiety and low self-worth of a teenager impacted by a being raised in a divorced home where she was in the middle between hostile parents who never learned to resolve conflicts in a constructive way. Olivia's parents divorced when she was ten years old. She remembers growing up that she always felt like she was walking on eggshells. Her parents argued a lot throughout her early years. "It's so sad when I look back," she says. "I missed out on a lot. I've learned not to speak up."

But this insecurity has also robbed her of her ability to be vulnerable with others, assert herself in relationships, and love herself. With hesitation in her voice, she explains, "I'm learning to be more comfortable with myself and not take my parents' problems to heart, but it feels hard. I don't know how to interpret some of their arguments - especially now that they live apart." Olivia reveals that although she is working on herself and her ability to make friends and take risks, she finds it difficult to be close to others and to spread her wings socially. The shame from her childhood has been a barrier for Olivia in building healthy relationships.

The experience of feeling safe and loved is what all children want and deserve - despite the configuration of their family. In some cases, a child's self-esteem can improve after his or her parents' divorce if there's a reduction in conflict and they feel loved and protected. Parents need to avoid exposing their child to high-conflict that involves the child, is physically violent, threatening or abusive; and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle.

As children try to make sense of the world around them, it's important that they are able to predict the behaviors and responses of important people in their lives. If kids experience a great deal of upheaval and unpredictability, they'll be wary of the world around them. They won't know what to expect, and they'll be unsure of their own actions. Further, parents must continually validate their children's abilities in order for them to feel self-confident and sure or themselves and their place in the world. If this reinforcement is absent or inconsistent from parents, children won't develop healthy self-esteem.

While it's impossible to avoid conflict completely, parents who learn to control their emotions bestow their children with the gifts of security and self-esteem they'll need to thrive and become resilient adults.

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