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Dismissing Your Child's Feelings When You And Hubby Fight Can Lead To Emotional Damage
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  • How we behave in our marriage affects our children more than we think. In her article titled, “How Our Parents' Marriages Shape Us” which was published in Psychology Today, author Peg Streep writes that children who were raised in volatile or unstable marriages may have difficulties managing their emotions or may ignore problems.

    How kids protect themselves when parents fight

    According to Streep, studies reveal that emotional distress caused by parental conflict impairs higher-order cognitive processing. Citing a study by University of Vermont Psychology Associate Professor, Alice Schermerhorn, children from fractious and volatile families had trouble recognizing neutral interactions when shown photographs of two people talking, although they were adept at recognizing happy or angry interactions.

    One possible explanation for this, Streep writes, is that a child uses her interpretation of her parents’ conflicts as a kind of radar to protect herself.

    “Of course, children interpret arguments as threatening to the stability of the family, and children who grow up around threats — of one parent leaving or talk of divorce — are more likely to be fearful and anxious than those who don’t,” she expounds.

    She also writes that a marriage that is distinguished by ‘quiet hostility’ and ‘total lack of communication’ inflicts another kind of damage. “In these households, problems and difficulties are swept under the rug and discussion of what anyone is feeling is pretty much off the table.”

    She adds, that the parents’ relationship is often the basis for the emotional life of the family and looking at that emotional life is highly illuminating.”


    Emotional coaching vs. dismissing emotions

    According to research by marital therapist John Gottman, there are two types of parents: parents who become emotion coaches and parents who dismiss emotions. Streep writes that Gottman's research is ‘extremely compelling’ because it considers not just ‘the behaviors our mothers and fathers modeled but also the emotional tenor of the household as it’s reflected in the marriage.”

    Expounding on what defines parents who are emotional coaches, Streep gives these characteristics: 

    • self-aware
    • pays attention to the role of emotions in their lives, especially negative emotions
    • could talk about their emotions in a differentiated manner
    • were aware of their children’s emotions
    • assists their children in managing emotions such as anger and sadness

    Streep equates these kind of parents to being emotionally intelligent and says that researchers view emotional coaching as a parenting philosophy with five components:

    1. Parents’ awareness of low-intensity emotions in themselves and their children;
    2. Seeing the child’s negative emotions as an opportunity for teaching or intimacy;
    3. Validating their child’s emotions;
    4. Assisting their child in verbally labeling their emotions; and
    5. Problem-solving with the child, setting behavioral limits, and strategizing ways to deal with the situation that led to the negative emotion.

    The researchers noted that children who grew up with parents who dismissed emotions perceived sadness as a burden on the parents, “a problem they had to fix, and that by dismissing sadness as unimportant, the child would become happy.”

    Additionally, they also noted that ‘some [parents] put time limits on how long sadness could be displayed and became impatient or irritated when the child didn’t change her emotional demeanor’ while some ‘actually punished their children or put them in a timeout for expressing anger.’

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    Streep writes, “What these parents didn’t do is explain or describe their child’s emotional experience, help the child with either her emotions or how to solve or address the problem that evoked these emotions, or see the emotion as beneficial in any way or providing any opportunity, either for intimate connection or teaching.” 

    How your parents’ marriage affect you

    According to Streep, to understand the model that you grew up in, it is important to think about how your parents’ attitude affected you.

    Did they seem to share a philosophy about emotions or did they both act in consistent ways? Did one or both of them use shaming or a threat of punishment to encourage you to contain or hide your feelings?’ were some of the questions Streep posed that we ask ourselves.

    Streep shares her and her sister’s experience of witnessing their father leave the family when her sister was 13 and she, 10 years old. “We were both convinced he’d left because we were both too bad to deal with. My mother, to her lasting shame, did nothing to correct that impression, nor did my father,” she writes.

    Streep points out that because of this experience, she has learned that there’s no use in talking about what [children] feel “because no one will listen anyway.” These parental behaviors, she stresses, contribute mightily to the deficits the unloved daughter has in managing emotions as an adult.

    Streep, who is the author of Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood, writes that “many unloved daughters learn to hide their emotions because they are mocked or derided for showing them.


    “All of these parental behaviors contribute mightily to the deficits the unloved daughter has in managing emotions as an adult,” she concludes.

    Arguments are part and parcel of any relationship. Click here for ways to deal with conflict without scaring the kids.

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