When Parents Are at War

I am not sure where this post is going. I don’t know if there is anything I can write that will make a difference. Still, I feel led to share some insights about the impact on children of warring parents. I see this over and over in my practice – two people who at one time must have loved each other, who got married and had one or more children, and who, over time, developed such animosity toward one another that their anger suffuses everything they do. Some of them ended their marriages; others did not. Married or not, they end up in my office expressing concern about a child who is depressed or anxious or defiant or failing in school or fighting on the playground. Some of the kids have a great deal of difficulty talking about the tension in their homes; others, like 17-year-old Rae, put it right out there:

I don’t even recognize my parents anymore. They are strangers to me, and to be honest, I don’t like them at all. – Rae, age 17

Rae was brought to me because, according to Mom and Dad, their “once upbeat and passionate” daughter had become sullen and apathetic about her schoolwork and her music. Not too long ago, she had aspired to renowned music schools after graduation. She enjoyed an active social life and maintained a 3.8 GPA in her academically challenging high school. Now, at the start of her senior year, she was questioning whether she even wanted to apply to college. Her test grades so far had been B’s and C’s, and she was rarely picking up her flute. Understandably, Mom and Dad were concerned that she was suffering from depression.

As is my custom, I interviewed Rae first. She is a lovely young woman who impressed me with her maturity, her intelligence, and her confidence. She reported an often sad and irritable mood but none of the other symptoms of depression (loss of pleasure, changes in sleep and/or appetite, changes in weight, difficulty concentrating and/or making decisions, feelings of hopelessness and/or worthlessness, suicidal thoughts). She also described her mood as reactive to what is happening around her: “I’m fine at school and with my friends but I feel miserable at home.”

Once I invited Rae’s parents to join us, it took me only a few minutes to figure out why Rae is miserable at home. Mom and Dad entered my office bickering and, throughout the remainder of the session, the barbs between them were constant. Within 20 minutes of sitting down with them, I knew that Dad was angry that Mom had not returned to her high-paying job once Rae’s youngest sibling started school, leaving him no choice but to stay at a job that he hates. I knew that Mom felt her in-laws had always considered her “beneath” their son. I knew that Dad was “obsessed with his electronic toys” and that Mom spent too much time “gossiping with her friends over coffee.” Each and every time I attempted to bring the discussion around to the parents’ concerns about Rae, Mom or Dad turned it back to the problems in the marital relationship. All the while, Rae sat quietly on the sofa and sank deeper and deeper into the cushions.

I subsequently learned from Rae that her parents had been at war for the past two years. She could remember a time when her family had spent happy times together playing board games, going on bike rides, and having jam sessions with their various instruments. Rae claimed to have no idea why her parents began to hate each other, but she remembered that it felt like it happened overnight. Since that time, her parents fought constantly and made nasty comments about one another to Rae and her sisters. What had once been a happy and loving household had become an environment of tension, hostility, and unhappiness. Mom and Dad were so caught up in their anger toward one another, they were unable to see the impact it was having on Rae (and undoubtedly her sisters).

Parents, if this story resonates with you, I beseech you to consider the following:

  • Just as children thrive in loving and supportive environments, they struggle when the atmosphere in the household is tense and angry. Children need to feel safe and loved in order to grow into secure adults who can enjoy healthy relationships.
  • Occasional disagreements in front of children are opportunities to model good conflict resolution skills. Constant and/or intense arguing between parents undermines the sense of safety and security that is necessary for children’s social and emotional development.
  • Yours is the most powerful model of an intimate relationship that your children observe. By watching you, they learn how to think about relationships, how to be in relationships, and how to treat and expect to be treated by intimate partners.
  • Important boundaries exist between parents and children. It is not appropriate for a parent to rely on a child, even an adult child, for support around marital problems. Problems in the marriage should not be discussed with a child, even if the child initiates the discussion.
  • Children love their parents. If they grow up with two parents, they will love both of them. Even when one spouse is a total schmuck to the other, the children will love them both. It is wrong to attempt to undermine a child’s love for a parent.

I don’t know how the situation with Rae will play out. After a very thorough evaluation, I determined that Rae does not suffer from a psychiatric disorder. She experiences depressed and irritable moods, but only when she is at home with her parents. She can’t focus on homework or flute practice, but only when her parents are at home. Her reactions to the stress in her family are not pathological; in fact, Rae is experiencing fairly typical emotional responses to high levels of parental conflict. I offered to see Rae for supportive therapy and to do some problem-solving about studying and practicing. She isn’t really apathetic; she just feels too upset when her parents are yelling at one another to focus on homework or flute practice.

To Rae’s parents, I made a very strong recommendation that they seek marital therapy. Initially, they were resistant. Each attempted to blame the other for the couple’s conflict and neither accepted any responsibility for the constant arguing. Both suggested that their spouse seek individual therapy. Dad balked at the expense of marital therapy. Mom mentioned that every couple she has known that has gone to marital therapy, including her own parents, ended up divorced.

Only when I pointed out the various ways that their relationship problems were having a strong negative impact on Rae did Mom and Dad begin to soften. Mom acknowledged the similarities between Rae’s experience as a teen and her own – both growing up in households with intense conflict. She remembered the pain she felt when her parents argued and how uncomfortable she felt when her mother would confide in her about the problems in the marriage. In contrast, Dad remembered his experience in his own family of origin as being filled with love and fun times. He very much wanted Rae and her sisters to grow up enjoying their family the way that he enjoyed his.

As of this post, Mom and Dad have agreed to meet with a marital therapist. I expect to see Rae for several sessions to help her cope with the stress in the family and to explore ways to rekindle her passion for music and academics. But, as I laid out clearly for her parents, I am not the one who has the power to make things better for Rae. Only Mom and Dad can do that.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When Parents Are at War

  1. You might be interested in my post for couples about “when to go for couple therapy”

  2. Pingback: Resource for Couples | What Kids Want Us to Know

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