Children have always had to face conflict in the world around them. The closer a conflict is to home, the greater the impact. This is why domestic violence is so devastating to a child.

A young child first learns about conflict in his own home. Children watch their parents’ struggles with careful attention. They become used to predictable parental arguments. They may try to defuse them, or offer their own “bad” behavior to divert parents from their quarrels.

They often even learn how to turn parents’ disagreements to their own short-term advantage. In the long run, though, parents who allow a child to play one off against the other will find themselves unable to exert the authority that children need if they are to feel secure and to thrive.

Marital discord becomes damaging when children fear for their safety or their parents’. They may also be afraid that they will lose a parent who threatens to leave.

If parental conflict is unavoidable, how can parents protect their children from its effects?

1. Avoid involving children in matters that are not their affair. This is more easily said than done, especially when one or both spouses are fired up.

2. Establish ground rules and try to stick to them. For example, if the children are present when a disagreement sparks, parents can agree to put off the argument until they can speak privately.

Sometimes it can be reassuring, and an opportunity for modeling, to acknowledge the disagreement and your plan for handling it: “We’re going to talk about this ourselves later. We’ll figure it out. We can take care of it. It’s not your issue.”

3. Don’t be surprised if children hear you when you think they can’t. They’re likely to worry, and to feel responsible for the outcome. Children today see divorce all around them. Each time parents fight, children may wonder, “Are they going to get divorced now too?”

4. Recognize that your children may benefit from an explanation. Simply acknowledge, “I know you can tell that Mommy and I are angry with each other right now. Sometimes we disagree with each other and get mad. But we’ll talk it over and try to make things better.” (But don’t give false reassurances if, for example, you’re actually on the verge of separation. Children’s trust in you is too valuable.)

If children don’t know what parents are fighting over, they will assume they are the sources of the conflicts. But when you share such information, don’t offer it in a way that invites them to take sides. Parents might say, “You know we fight about who forgot to get gas, or about silly things such as who didn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste.” But don’t say which parent always leaves the cap off.

5. Don’t encourage the children to decide which one of you is right. If your arguments are so intense that you can’t tone them down or postpone the worst for times when the children are safely out of earshot, then you deserve to get professional help for your relationship.

Whether you can learn to turn your destructive fights into constructive ones, or whether you must come to grips with the end of your relationship (no matter how hard you have worked at it), your children will benefit from the clarity you gain.

In such circumstances, you may both find it useful to remember that the only person you can ever really change is yourself.

This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger and Aggression,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to:

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