Being the Calm in the Storm

Carmel Valley San Diego Community | When Parents Fight | Dr. Keith Kanner

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Keith Kanner

When parents fight, kids suffer.  Most become worried and anxious.  This is certainly the case for 9 year old Kaylee every time her parents get into a loud altercation in their home.  The pattern is always the same.  Her parents get into an ugly argument, call each other names, makes idle threats, and then go their separate ways for a range of hours to days.  Kaylee then cries herself to sleep;  worries about her parents getting a divorce; and then, usually gets into some sort of trouble at school the next day.  Her teacher, Mrs. T, an old soul with 30 years of teaching, has identified the pattern and has developed a loving and caring rapport with Kaylee when such days manifest.  Her teacher manages to calm her down, keep her focused, and reassures her that she is loved and will be safe.  Parent conferences begin next week and Mrs. T is planning on bringing up the pattern to Kaylee’s parents, but she has had numerous experiences of parents refusing to consider that their behavior has such traumatic effects on their children.

Four-year-old Issac has a similar situation in his home.  His parents yell and fight with one another almost all of the time and in front of him and his older brother, Tim.  When this happens at the dinner table, Tim will often put his hands over his ears and eventually rescue Issac from the table by taking him upstairs to play some sort of game to get their minds off of their worries.  But the play is only temporary.  Tim believes the arguing is his fault for having ADD, and Issac consistently bed wets almost in sequence when his parent get into a fight.

The effect of parental fighting in front of children at any age is traumatic and scary.  As children from infancy through adolescence depend upon their parents for consistent security, protection, and guidance, parents who cannot manage their feelings leave their children in states of peril.  The common conclusion that children make when they see their parents engage in full court arguments is that the family is not a safe haven to rely upon during daily ups and downs that children experience everyday at school and with their peers.

Often times, due to extreme anxiety, children will then develop “symptoms” which are manifestations of their internal conflicts.  In the example above, Kaylee’s symptom was difficulty in school, and Issac’s was wetting his bed.  Although sad and indicative of a child suffering, the attentive parent can use these signs as wake up calls to change themselves for the benefit of their children.

One of the essential “jobs” of any parent is to be the “filing station” for their child.  Here, as children and adolescents struggle, due to normal development, the manage their feelings and choices, they return to their parents on a daily basis verbally or non-verbally to “check in” or “re-fuel” to help them internalize coping mechanisms and good choices to help them mold their personalities and manage themselves.  In healthy families, mothers and fathers consciously or unconsciously pick up on these cues from their children and respond to their kids in a consistent loving and guiding style, which soothes the child and helps them learn to manage themselves.  When the parent or parents are “out of control” themselves, the child is left without that safe object or objects to rely upon in times of need and fears their own fate when experiencing stressful events.

Our research indicates that parents who cannot manage their own emotions, tend to produce children who are the same.  In other words, history repeats itself if the adult –parent does not attempt to shift their own ways of managing themselves in the presence of their children.  Irrespective of all of the years of schooling that children withstand over the years, the parents are the fundamental teachers to their children and remain so throughout adolescence and even into adulthood.

Tips to Help Parents Calm Down:
  1. Learn to manage your own anger better
  2. Think about your kids before you get into a fight with your partner
  3. Be aware of how your behavior can hurt your child
  4. Set good examples of how to deal with conflict
  5. Always remember that home needs to be the safe/responsible haven
  6. Get help if you can’t manage the conflicts yourself

Carmel Valley San Diego Community | Keith Kanner

Dr. Keith Kanner is a Licensed and Board Certified Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. In addition to a full-time private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, California, he is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Diego where he teaches both human development and also trains medical students how to better understand and relate to their patients. He also serves as the Director of Clinical Counseling for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, California, and is a Clinical Professor at The San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.  Dr. Kanner also sits on the National Board of Directors for Kids Korps USA, which is the largest organization in the country that teaches children and adolescents the importance of volunteering to help the community at large. As a father of three children, he is also a dedicated baseball, football, and soccer coach.


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