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Thomas Maples

Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds, they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Child-centered conflict resolution begins with talking through your problems.

A Child-Centered Approach to Conflict Resolution during Divorce

A Child-centered approach to conflict resolution focuses on higher-order values. As a therapist, one of the biggest problems I see as an inhibitor for children to move on from family conflict is their capacity to understand an independent relationship with both parents outside of the conflicts present. This article examines family conflict, conflict resolution, and the ability to take on a child-centered approach to creating an independent relationship with your children.

In the throws of family conflict, an all too often occurrence seen in today’s social chaos, what is often left untold is the effects it has on the children – those innocent parties that hear, and yes, listen to every word of the conflict regardless of whether their presence is known or not. As parents, we often face a Catch-22 when dealing with relationship conflict and its effects on our children.

On one side, when involved in a relationship, there are times when disagreements will naturally arise. Even though we may strive to avoid such conflicts with a spouse or a loved one, arguments nevertheless arise and can be caused by several factors, including personal experience, differences in morals, values, and ethics, and differing perceptions about where the relationship is versus where each party wants to be in their independent lives. On the other hand, is a need we have to instill those values in the next generation, teaching them the life lessons we find essential so that our progeny will successfully develop the skills to navigate the everyday stresses life will throw their way, hopefully finding ways to better themselves in a manner the parental generation could not.

Co-Parenting and the messages we send our children during a family conflict?

While not meant to be a jab to the almighty parental ego, or a denial of the importance conflict plays in interpersonal growth, as the promoters of our children’s social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual development, we must make ourselves aware of and accountable for the ways our interpersonal conflicts imprint upon our children the social skills they will use to handle issues of relationship distress and conflict. While differences of opinion are common within interpersonal relationships, through learning ways to navigate towards mutual understanding, children become better navigators of stressful events by developing prosocial values, morals, and ethically based ways to handle the stresses present. A child-centered approach to conflict resolution examines one pivotal question, what message about relating to others do you want to send to your child?

In a recent article, I explored the importance of helping children develop conflict resolution skills by navigating the parental divorce through open communication, setting the tone for clear decisions based upon empathic awareness of a child’s emotional concerns, and helping them navigate their emotional landscape through a child-centered lens. While children have access to the same emotions adults do, they do not necessarily have the logic-based capacity to explain their emotional state the same way an adult can.

Most adults have access to at least a rudimentary set of emotions by which they can begin to formulate meaning about how they interact within the environment. Because children are dependent, they have not yet shifted from a parent-centered view, causing them to develop similar values, morals, and social expectations set by their parents. This is fundamental to learning and passing on what is essential from one generation to the next. However, as a child develops, so too does their self-psychological lens, and they develop the capacity to develop their perceptions about right and wrong, good feelings versus bad feelings, and other foundational aspects of moral development still dependent on, yet functionally becoming independent of their parent’s value set. Within early life,  when a child faces conflict, the meta-messages behind such conflict pull at them as they strive to make sense of right and wrong, all while facing other conflicts of judgment between the two parties responsible for teaching them the values they strive to learn. Within the last example, the child can make their moral judgment based upon the evidence they are subjected to, often either fighting one or both parents or simply succumbing to the stress found present within the emotional conflict, giving up their locus of control to fate, never establishing self-direction as an aspect of internal growth.

Child-Centered Emotional Health and Conflict Resolution

While the emotions present in divorce are amplified examples of how conflict affects children’s emotional and psychological well-being, the basic skills of helping your children navigate through their emotions are no different for families who remain together yet have intermittent conflicts. This is where positive parenting interactions can assist children to navigate the torrents of emotions they may present, with one or both parents willing to take on a child-centered conflict resolution pattern.

Within a two-parent family, a child must learn to navigate between two opposing yet complementary values, morals, and ethics within the family structure. A child is born into their family and learns within their expectations ways to navigate the world, perceive and interact with the environment, develops their own set of morals, values, and ideologies, and will ultimately pass these on to their children. Through a complex process of learning, adapting to, synthesizing, ridding one’s self of the unwanted, and integrating the opposing themes common within interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts, a child assumes the complex task of mediating between the often opposing themes of parental values while developing their attitudes, beliefs, and environmental understanding dependent on, yet independently functioning from each parent’s personal beliefs. While children are ultimately in control of their emotional state, as parents, we stand as gatekeepers to the way our children perceive and make sense of their emotions, giving us the utmost responsibility to help them develop healthy ways to handle, integrate, and move on from unhealthy emotional and behavioral concerns.

So what are we to do?

What a child-centered approach is not.

Your child is not a referee, mediator, or judge.

A child-centered approach does not mean your child is the mediator between you and your spouse’s interpersonal conflict. It is up to you as parents to resolve your differences and help your child understand, navigate, and integrate their emotional response to the conflict they have heard. It sounds like common sense, but it is not often followed! More often than not, I have seen parents not only involve their children in their interpersonal conflicts, expecting them to side with one parent over another and ultimately divide the child at the expense of their immature conflicts but also expect reinforcement from their child for the very behaviors that are dividing them at the psychological level.

A child-centered approach does not place the locus of control within a child’s hands.

Parental responsibility and legal judgment always remain within a parent’s control. Children want rights but ultimately lack the cognitive capacity to assume the responsibility given within the rights they seek. Children are ego-centric and have not fully understood the gifts they are given. Unfortunately, many adults are similar and will ardently fight for their rights while finding excuses for their inability and reluctance to assume responsibility. As parents, we must first and foremost begin to navigate our awareness of emotional states to help our children navigate their feelings in a manner that promotes social well-being.

Your child understands more than you think.

Because your child understands things from a more simplistic perspective, it does not mean that your level of consciousness is somehow superior to theirs. Children are much more in touch with their emotions because they have not had the years to develop repressive and suppressive tendencies adults have to deal with unwanted emotional states. Listen to them, and help them understand what they are dealing with. Don’t teach them to repress: Teach them to express. This allows for more fluid handling of both wanted and unwanted emotions, leading to better integration and, ultimately, better standing in allowing other opinions to be voiced and heard.

In our current social policy, it is too easy to see how a generation of parents, too wrapped up in their conflicts, have promoted a generation of children unable to express, handle, or integrate their emotional conflicts. Divorce is steady at 50+%, we remain in a state of perpetual conflict and war, and we are bombarded daily with images from the news of unwanted conflicts, hatred, and misunderstandings. Where do our children stand in all of this negative skewing?

The need for conflict resolution, not based upon retribution but on mutual growth, is paramount. Children need to learn about their emotions. Their adult lives are dependent on these lessons. However, many adults have not been taught the very lessons they are expected to teach when they enter parenthood uneducated and unable to transition towards understanding their own emotions, let alone those of their children.

Family is the building block of community. As a community and even a country, we must strive to help our children learn healthy interpersonal conflict-resolution methods. This is a basis for them to grow more harmonious, equitable, and grounded in their psychological development. Maybe, through the lessons taught them, we too may have a new beginning, finding ourselves in the happy eyes of our children, who look upon us in thanks for the guidance we have given.

What are your thoughts?

Dr. Tom


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