If You Fight with Your Co-parent will this Affect your Child’s Development?
Stacy, the mother of 6-year-old Ashley, was in one of my high-conflict divorce groups. Stacy is a bright woman. She is an attorney with advanced degrees. After listening to a discussion about why conflict is detrimental to children, Stacy tentatively raised her hand.
“I’m not sure I understand this,” Stacy said. “I don’t get why the conflict between her dad and I would have anything to do with her development. She has to recognize that he and I are different and she’s going to know she is a girl, so why would our arguments and fights affect her role identity?”
This actually was an excellent question which gave us a chance to talk more about how children establish their identities and how gender role develops. In addition, of course, it provided a wonderful opportunity to talk about the effect parental conflict may have on children’s identity.
In early childhood, children look to their same-sex parents in order to figure out the appropriate roles for them as either a male or female. Although this seems simple enough, there are various theories about how boys learn to be boys and girls to be girls. The social learning theory in child development says that children learn how to be either a boy or a girl through observation. They see, according to this view, how boys act differently from girls.
Furthermore, social learning theory holds that children are rewarded differently by adults for different kinds of behavior. Thus, they choose to engage in sex-appropriate behaviors that lead to approval or rewards from their parents.
Yet, despite other theories (in addition to social learning theory) about how boys and girls learn to act like others of their gender, there is considerable evidence that from an early age there are innate differences that shape the ways boys and girls behave. By age three, most children develop an identity as a girl or a boy. And by age five or six, most children know whether they are members of the male sex or the female sex.
This does not mean that all observation and learning ceases from this point. Throughout adolescence and into adulthood, people are constantly developing and refining their identity.
It was the great psychologist Erik Erikson who in the mid-20th century recognized that identity was the major personality achievement of adolescence. Erikson said that a young’s person’s identity formation was a crucial step toward becoming a happy and productive adult. According to Erikson, identity involves children and teens defining who they are, what they value, and the directions they would like to pursue in life.
But there can be road blocks to the successful establishment of identity. When teens are having trouble figuring out who they are and what they value, that is called role confusion. What leads to role confusion?
Several things can cause role confusion, but one factor is low self-esteem. Although moving from middle school to high school can cause some temporary declines in self-esteem, most adolescents experience rising levels of self-esteem as they progress through high school.
But, self-esteem is often related to the home environment. When there is warmth, emotional support, approval, and positive problem solving going on, young people will like themselves. However, when the home environment is largely negative, inconsistent, or discouraging, teenagers will be uncertain of their abilities, and they may feel incompetent and unloved. As a result, they may be constantly in need of reassurance and their self-esteem may fluctuate dramatically.
On the other hand, parents who engage in and demonstrate positive problem-solving skills foster high-esteem in their children. In families in which there is discord and negative problem solving, children do not feel a sense of well-being. They may be very confused about whether they want to be like their same-sex parent, and they may be conflicted about the direction they want to go in life. That is, when there is on-going co-parent fighting and conflict, teens will lack clear directions. Furthermore, they will not feel committed to values and goals. And they may have failed to figure out who they are, may wonder about the importance of growing up and having intimate relationships, and may have a greater sense of hopeless about the future.
Although children who have grown up with parental conflict will be very well aware of their gender identity as a male or female, they may be confused about feeling good as a boy or a girl.
Is Honesty with Children always the Best Policy?
Many parents believe that honesty is the best policy when it comes to communicating with their children. But can honesty be detrimental to children?
Consider these situations:
- After a separation or divorce, your child asks why you and Daddy don’t love each other anymore. Are you supposed to give all the sordid details of why the breakup occurred? Especially, if, indeed, there are circumstances, such as an affair, which led to the end of the relationship?
- Your child asks for a new winter jacket, but you say you can’t get one for her. She asks why. Are you supposed to say that you don’t get any child support from your co-parent and you’re struggling financially to provide the bare necessities?
- Your former spouse has seen your children consistently, but recently because of a criminal offense, they are trying to evade the police as there is a warrant for their arrest. You both agree that if your ex-spouse takes the children there could be a situation where the police stop them and they are arrested and taken away in handcuffs in front of the kids. So, you both agree it is better the other parent not take the children right now to avoid that kind of circumstance. What do you say to the children as to why their other parent isn’t coming to see them anymore?
These three scenarios are rather common, but they present dilemmas for one or both parents in trying to anticipate and answer children’s questions or explain why there may be changes in the family life. Are you supposed to be honest and “tell the truth,” or is it better to withhold information or tell a white lie in order to protect either the children or one (or both) parents?
There are no hard and fast rules about this, but there are factors that must be taken into consideration in order to make decisions as to what you share with your children.
One factor that must be considered is the age of the child. Young children, although this can apply to adolescents as well, just do not have the maturity or the life experiences to adequately understand some matters. For instance, sharing details about an affair, sexual difficulties, or domestic violence may be seen by a child in a black-and-white way without being able to see various aspects of the situation.
Another factor is the closeness that the child enjoys with the parent whom you may disparage with negative information. If the child loves the other parent, enjoys a special bond with that parent, or even idolizes him or her, being told something negative (albeit, true) about that parent may be accepted without question, be denied, or may lead to feeling caught in the middle. Young children generally should have not their idealized image of a parent smashed so early.
A third factor is what giving true — but critical information — about the other parent will do to the child’s relationship with you. Being told something negative about their other parent is likely to place them in the middle of the situation. We typically say that a child is “stuck in the middle.” In more psychological terms, being in the middle and feeling pulled in two different directions creates a loyalty bind for most children.
In a loyalty bind, the child must find a way of trying to reconcile what they feel (love towards the other parent) versus what they’ve been told (negative feedback about that parent). Who are they to believe? Which parent should they be loyal to? What should they say or do with each parent – particularly when they are with each parent?
This is such a difficult situation for most kids, that they often become alienated from one or both parents, lie to maintain a sense of loyalty to each parent, or develop hostile and angry feelings to one or both of their parents. Either way, there is nothing about being told the truth about one of their parents that brings, joy, good feeling, or a more tranquil sense of peace.
When faced with this kind of dilemma, you must carefully weigh these factors before giving too much information or before being absolutely honest.
You are Teaching Your Child Language Skills Even When You are Not Aware of it
There are many amazing things about young children. For instance, they go from being a totally helpless infant at birth to a much more independent toddler. They progress from needing an adult to turn them over to becoming an active crawler in just a few short months. And, even more amazing, they start life with no language at all and by age two are talking.
How does that happen? How do children learn language and develop the ability to communicate verbally with others?
As it turns out, parents have a lot to do with this amazing and extraordinary accomplishment. Most of the time you are making significant contributions to your young child’s language development without even being aware what exactly you are doing that is helping him or her become a talker.
I was watching a baby at a nearby table in a restaurant recently. When this cute baby who was about six months of age started babbling, several adults who were close enough to hear her started talking to her by making babbling sounds in imitation of her. Her mother leaned closer to her and started telling her what a good talker she was and talked to her as if she could understand the little girl. None of the adults in this situation were responding to the girl in order to “teach” her to talk; they were simply compelled to respond. But they all did the right thing.
All babies – no matter what country or culture they are in – start babbling at about six months of age. And they all use the same cooing sounds and repeat the same consonant-vowel combinations. Most will babble such sounds as “bababa” or “mamama.” But for babbling to develop further, infants must hear human speech.
In other words, they have to be exposed to people who are talking. As babies hear others talk, they babble even more. Soon, some words or sounds that could be words begin to be uttered. And by 10 or 12 months, there are sounds appearing that can be distinguished as words. But in order to become a communicator, infants have to engage in other activities aside from hearing their parents or other people talk.
For one thing, early in that first year, usually by three or four months of age, babies are able to gaze in the same direction as adults are looking. By the end of the first year, they are more skilled at this. That’s when something called joint attention begins between parents and child.
Joint attention means that child and parent are paying attention to the same object or event. When mom or dad labels that event and talks about it, good things are happening for language development. For example, if the child is in a highchair at the table and a colorful cake is placed on the table (out of the child’s reach, it is hoped), both the child and parent will look at it. Dad might say, “That cake looks delicious!” Then turning to the child, dad says, “Pretty cake!” Without taking her eyes off the cake, the child might say “’ake.” To which dad might reply: “Pretty cake,” emphasizing the pronunciation of “cake.”
When young children take part in this joint attention experience, they are comprehending more language (in this example, the child hears the words “pretty” and “delicious”), they are learning and may be producing gestures (both Dad and child may point at the cake), and they will develop their vocabulary quicker.
By being aware of the importance of a simple concept like joint attention, you can help your child develop her language skills much quicker and more powerfully. It’s one thing to talk to your child, but it’s quite another to make sure there is joint attention and that what you are saying refers to what you are both watching.
Joint attention and the language that goes along with it can take place many times a day. What this does besides what I’ve just mentioned is to also establish a common ground between you and your child. You are sharing an experience. By looking at an object or event together and then by you talking about it, your child will be able to figure out the meaning of many of your words – even if you don’t stop to explain each one. This leads to a richer vocabulary and something else very important in your child’s development — an increased attention span.