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November 02, 2018 Friday 11:50:55 AM IST



A thirteen-year-old girl was brought to a counselling session by her parents. The girl was unwilling to go for counselling since she believed her parents needed counselling in the first place.

The parents were very vocal and forceful about their daughter’s disruptive behaviour, lack of interest in almost everything, especially in her studies, and the act of defiance to parents. When the girl was asked what her problem was, she replied, “Doctor, my mom and dad really need counselling! They fight with each other every night! We can’t do anything right when they quarrel with each other. Tell them to stop their fight; I will be OK.”

 In another incident, a little girl who was fighting with her younger brother, was scolded by her mother, and the little girl quipped, “Mom, you and dad fight every day, why can’t we fight”? 

Recently, a mother brought her nine-year-old son for consultation. She was quite upset and anguished at the strange behaviour of her son, his irritable nature, lack of interest in home work and school, poor eating habits, and so on.  On enquiry, it was learned that the boy was separated from his dad due to marital discord and violence among parents. He asks so many questions to his mother. Why doesn’t daddy visit us? Does he hate us? Will he stop loving us? Will we ever go back to daddy? When are we going to daddy’s house, and so on.

Deepak, a bright student, has been out of school since the recent disastrous floods in Kerala. But the flood had nothing to do with the dropping out of the amiable teenager who had been doing well at studies as well as extra-curricular activities. His parents had been separated, but he loved both of them and wanted to live along with them. Deepak was desperately deploying what he thought to be his last-ditch effort to bring the quarrelling parents together, by sacrificing his studies. He refused to go for counselling, in spite of his parents’ relentless attempts to get him some help.

 The above-mentioned events are not isolated or rare; on the contrary, practitioners and policy-makers are confronted with alarming increase in such cases, where the children are adversely affected.  Parental relationship plays significant role in promoting positive or negative feelings among children, cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally.

Research indicates that exposure to acrimonious behaviour of parents can manifest itself in a number of ways among children aged 6 to 17. (Recent studies have revealed that babies as old as six months are affected by parental conflicts). Some of the negative outcomes are: increased anxiety, depression, aggression, hostility, anti-social behaviour, criminality as well as deficiency in academic performance (Harold, Aitken & Shelton, 2007).

Different studies have brought out the implications of such dysfunctional behaviour among children and adolescents:

·        Parental conflict affects specific neuro-biological processes which in turn affect children’s emotional and cognitive development.

·        Continuous exposure to such conflicts engenders or complicates health problems among children.

·        Relational skills are negatively affected -- interpersonal skills with parents, siblings, peers, teachers, romantic partners are all affected.

·        Negative Modelling: Observational learning leads children to internalize their behaviour which they often see being resorted to by their role models (parents) and tend to externalize it in peer relations.

·        Long-term impact: Inter-parental relationship serves as a model for other family relationships including the parent-child relationship. Evidently, this has inter-generational implications. A distorted parenting style can damage the next generation of children too.

Role of Conflict Management  

In the light of clinical evidence and research findings, it becomes imperative that positive conflict management strategies be included in interventions aimed at addressing the adverse effects of family conflict on children. Parents and parents-to-be must get a handle on how to manage conflicts constructively.

Couples with poor conflict resolution skills typically engage in fight, flight or freezing behaviours. The process of resolving marital conflict equips couples to intensify mutual interest, affection and mutual respect.  Successful couples have the ability to learn and grow through their interpersonal difficulties. Like fine wine, their relationship improves with age and gets better over time.

 It isn’t whether parents fight, but how parents fight that matters.

Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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