My kids get stressed out from social conflict. Each has a distinctly different style of coping.
Our son’s a retreater. “We’re not friends anymore,” my son says about one of his best friends, whenever his feelings get hurt. Even with me, when he’s upset, he runs from the house and down the block for awhile.
Our daughter’s a threatener. When she’s mad or embarrassed, she threatens. She’s not looking for a solution; she’s hoping we’ll back down if she makes her threat big enough.
One of the most important set of skills kids need as they mature is the ability to work out conflict without destroying relationships. When arguments happen, some kids simply want to win – they’ll attempt to dominate. Other kids are quick to cave, doing anything to make their friend happy just to save the relationship. Ideally, kids will learn eventually to neither dominate nor cave; they’ll learn to stand up for themselves and yet not put the relationship at risk. An amazing long-term study by Dr. Joe Allen measured this skill in seventh graders, and then tracked them for the next dozen years. The ability to stand up for oneself, to a best friend, yet not threaten the relationship – a trait Allen labeled “Autonomy & Relatedness” – predicted incredibly good outcomes for the kids in his study over the long term. Most notably, they had really good relationships: with friends, with romantic partners, and with their parents.
The relevant question is, where do kids get this skill from?
This was the topic of my appearance on Good Morning America this morning, though if you saw me on the show you might not realize this. That’s because I came at this idea from another angle. There, I was talking about marital conflict, and how we fight in front of our kids. We all know we’re not supposed to fight in front of the kids – we’ve all heard that it stresses them out. But it happens. We’re not perfect. We’re not even close to perfect. Dr. Mark Cummings has parents use diaries to record every spousal squabble, from outright screaming matches to the slightest bicker over who didn’t pick up the dry cleaning. It’s amazing how common hostility is between spouses – in Cummings’ sample, it was eight times per day, according to the moms. (According to the dads, it was seven times per day.) And kids are witness to these tensions 45% of the time. They’re three times more likely to witness an argument between parents than witness a moment of affection between parents.
What Cummings has found though is that the stress on kids is moderated if they get to see parents make real attempts at resolution. When kids see an argument worked out, or even see a conciliatory approach, they’re not only not stressed out, they’re actually happy. They really like it.*
And they learn from it. Cummings has found that kids who witness conflict resolved between parents are taking the lesson to their own friendships. So they’re rated by teachers as having greater security and being more prosocial. Cummings would never suggest that parents try to fight in front of the kids; rather, his point is that kids are already witnessing a lot – and those provide more than enough opportunities.
It’s not always so easy to resolve a conflict, but Cummings’ research suggests that even if parents talk about it the next day with kids – let them know how you worked it out – that’s helpful, too.
There’s one other touchstone worth mentioning. It’s about what I call “Trap Door” divorces. Many parents protect children so well from their tensions that kids have no idea divorce is imminent. The bottom suddenly falls out on them. Children of Trap Door divorces, according to the research, grow up not trusting relationships, and in turn have much higher rates of divorce when they grow up.
* There’s one important exception to this. That’s when spouses fight about parenting itself, which is quite common. Kids never like it when THEY are the subject of an argument between parents. So that might be one argument topic to still protect them from.