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.