“For The Children’s Sake”: Does Staying In An Abusive Relationship Impact On Your Kids?

Parents fighting all the time can affect kids deeply. Is there any sense in staying in an abusive relationship “for the children’s sake” then?

Domestic violence and marital conflict remain leading causes of psychosocial stress for many women irrespective of their educational or economic background. Despite being empowered through financial independence, social support or psychological counselling, many find it hard to stop the cycle of abuse or conflict. Violence in the household can easily put the children at direct risk of being physically harmed but if there is no threat to their children’s safety, then women are more likely to continue to remain in the abusive relationship. One of the main reasons cited is “staying together for the children’s sake”. Are the children really benefitting from growing up in such an environment? Lets look at some of the psychological effects on children when they are exposed to excessive conflict or violence amongst their parents.

Sleep difficulties

Prolonged exposure to parental conflict leads to poor sleeping patterns in children which in turn affects their growth, their performance in school and leads to a range of mental health difficulties. Not sleeping well may further expose them to night time arguments and violence which may otherwise have been hidden from them.

Impact on academics

Even if their sleep is not affected, kids exposed to violence are likely to perform poorly in academics compared to their peers. Their concentration is poorer and they are more likely to be preoccupied with the problems at home. Pre-occupied parents are less likely to be able to optimally support children with their school work.

Emotional insecurity & anxiety

Exposure to violence and high conflict at an early age, can lead to difficulty in regulating emotions. High levels of unchecked aggression or depression can make it harder for children to manage their own negative emotions, and feel insecure in expressing themselves properly. They may become anxious either in childhood or as adults and be unable to tolerate even lesser degrees of conflict in day to day life.

Behavioural problems

Children raised in this environment learn to solve problems through violence and aggression. Their dysfunctional behaviour often plays out in playgrounds or schools, and can lead to labelling the child as a ‘problem child’. Children may go on to become aggressive and/or abusive adults, repeating the cycle all over again.

Early maturity & later maladjustment

If the balance in a marriage is greatly tipped to one side, where one parent is the abuser and the other a victim, then children can often feel compelled to protect the victim. They “grow up fast” and their intervention may actually reduce the violence, giving the appearance of a favourable outcome. But the impact of this on the child is far from favourable. As adults they may find it hard to separate from their parents, for fear of the abuse returning if they were not around. Many specific disorders are linked to children who frequently feel that they have to intervene, such as eating disorders, phobias and depression.

Depression in later life

Many parents are careful to avoid exposing their children to the conflict, but may continue to struggle quietly in an abusive marriage.

Unfortunately even hidden conflict has an impact on children and raises their stress hormones. Long term elevated stress can lead to depression in later life. If one or more parent is heavily dependant on alcohol, as can often happen in a violent marriage, that is also strongly associated with depression in the offspring.

Helplessness & guilt

As the children grow up and realise that their parents are not the ideal adults they had thought them to be, it can impact on their relationship with their parents. There is a higher chance for girls ending up in similar abusive marriages as their mothers and struggle similarly to get out of it, not having known any other way to respond to physical or verbal abuse. But often the children are also exposed to the narrative that their mother stayed in the marriage “for their sake” making them guilty for being the reason their mother was unable to resolve or respond to the abuse.

Even though women are more often the victims in abusive relationships, the above applies equally to men who are stuck at the receiving end. While it’s not necessary to give a sanitised experience of growing up to our children, and seeing parents fight is a normal part of life, it’s important that children also see their parents resolving the fights to a balanced outcome. It’s not necessary for women to leave their abusive husbands or vice versa, but if efforts are not made in stopping the violence or resolving the conflict, it will do more harm than good to the entire family. Even more important than staying together in an abusive relationship is parenting together as happy individuals…. “For the children’s sake!”

Header image is a still from the movie Secret Superstar

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I'm a Psychiatrist & Family Psychotherapist specialising in maternal mental health and attachment disorders. Apart

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