Happy parents in long-term relationships make for happy, well-adjusted kids. So what happens when our adult relationships get rocky?
A growing body of research confirms what family therapists have known for many years. When parents improve their adult relationship – through workshops, counseling, self-help books or other means – their children experience measurable academic gains. In other words, happy adults in functional long-term relationships most often produce well-adjusted kids more likely to succeed at school.
What does this mean in a culture where over half of marriages end in divorce and many parents never form stable partnerships at all? For so many of us, relationship struggle – conflict, separation, single parenting – is a reality. Are our offspring doomed to suffer the consequences of our often-tumultuous adult lives? While there are no simple solutions, there are coping strategies we can deploy to make sometimes-bumpy emotional environments more conducive to children’s well being, as well as their academic achievement.
What are kids thinking?
Empathy – the identification with or understanding of another person’s thoughts, feelings or motives outside one’s own immediate experience – is a sophisticated concept to internalize. Generally speaking, children struggle with empathy because it requires connections made in their frontal lobe, part of the brain that is not fully developed until the age of 20. Consequently, our kids’ frame of reference is relatively narrow – they believe everything that happens (good or bad) is directly related to them.
When parental disagreements constantly escalate to loud arguing or devolve to cold silences, kids often blame themselves, believing they are the cause, or somehow could have done something to prevent the conflict. The less parents are able to emotionally connect with their kids (due to their own feelings of anger, hurt or overwhelm), the more their children’s insecurity grows.
Their consistent failure to do the impossible – make positive change at home – ultimately erodes children’s self-confidence. At the same time, the perpetual exposure to stress hormones (cortisol) can gradually undermine their brain development, impairing memory, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.
Classroom learning depends largely on a student’s mental and emotional availability – their readiness to absorb and respond – together with their ability to connect with people (teachers, peers) and ideas. Our children’s school experience does not occur in isolation of their personal lives; everything is intricately linked. Consequently, significant stress at home will translate to learning challenges in class.
What are kids doing?
While single parents can get a ‘bad rap’ in terms of their presumed lack of capacity to produce well-adjusted kids, research has exposed a slightly different story. Long-term studies show it is less the absence of a second parent and more the overall emotional stability of the household that has the greatest impact on children’s global development and academic skill building.
Adult relationship transitions – separation, divorce, new partners moving in or out – tend to disrupt routines, reduce material resources, and interfere with the primary parent’s focus on children’s needs. The more frequently kids experience major changes at home, the higher the incidence of behaviour problems and developmental delays they’re likely to display in all aspects of their lives.
Sometimes children will act out their feelings of fear, hurt, anxiety or anger by being aggressive (screaming, teasing, hitting, bullying, destroying things) or rule breaking (swearing, cheating, lying, stealing). They may also internalize their feelings, becoming overly self-conscious, worried, secretive or withdrawn.
Kids can also manifest physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, and also attention issues like day-dreaming or staring blankly, confusion, or poor concentration or memory. Younger children who lack the maturity to mitigate those shifting circumstances, and boys – particularly those who suffer alienation from Dad – are the most vulnerable to the effects of both parental conflict and family instability. These behaviours and states of mind will interfere with a child’s capacity to be ready to learn at school.
What can we do?
We’ve all grown-up with some version of “And they lived happily ever after”. Whether or not we buy in to the fairytale, anyone who has a life partner (or wants one), would prefer that relationship to be stable and functional.
But committed adult relationships can be tough, and things don’t always work out the way we planned. Knowing what we do about how this impacts our kids, what are our options?
1. Cultivate self-awareness. The first person we need to develop a great relationship with is ourselves. As parents, we often lose sight of our needs in favour of caring for our children. With a sense of what does/ doesn’t work for you and how you can best fulfill your own needs, you’ll have a much better chance of being content, with or without a partner. A happier person makes a better parent.
2. Communicate. Not only with your partner,
but with your children. Having brief, age-appropriate discussions about significant differences of opinion or strong feelings rather than suppressing or hiding them is healthier for the entire family.
Open conversation helps children ‘see other points of view’, eliminates their sense of confusion or self-blame, and avoids the pitfall of mutual indifference between adults, which can be as damaging to a child’s well being as open conflict at home. Meanwhile, if parents do separate, children caught by surprise are far more likely to be traumatized than those who had some expectation of the impending change.
3. Seek support. Your school is a community resource. Teachers, principals, guidance staff, coaches, counselors and school psychologists are all available to support you and your family during challenging times. Your community also has local family counseling professionals and programs available. The first step toward getting help is to ask. Share your concerns in a way that enables your school and community service providers to support you and your children.
4. Promote patience. If you do become a single parent, acknowledge that the average adjustment period required for each new family scenario is approximately two years. Consider each change with care. Providing stability for your children at home can be the most important step you take to boost their success at school.
5. Foster compassion. For others and for yourself. Former partners who are cooperative rather than hostile with one another help ease the transition for children. They can more easily re-establish routines including shared holiday time, extracurricular program attendance, homework and project completion that support emotional security as well as student success.
Encouraging fathers to stay involved if they are not the primary parent – dividing vacation time, attending school events, teacher conferences, etc., – reduces their tendency to become marginalized and engages them in sharing parenting responsibilities that extend into the classroom.
6. Practise parenting. Children need you to continue being the adult, not their pal. They require consistent limits, guidance, and routines. More than ever they will look to you for reassurance that all is well despite the apparent upheaval of their safe little world.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out to friends, family or local professionals rather than making your child a confidant.
Relationships do not come without challenges. The extent to which we are willing to address those challenges and garner a set of tools to help overcome conflicts that naturally arise at home, the better parents we’ll become.