What is sensitization and how does it affect children?

Over a number of decades, researchers have considered the effects on children of having parents who are frequently conflicted, whether their parents live together or have separated. 

In this blog, we provide a quick reminder of

  • the types of behaviour that fall under the umbrella of parental conflict;
  • how children are affected or become sensitized to conflict; and
  • how, by having a more conscious awareness of such conflict, we can respond appropriately to protect our children from developing sensitization.

Many adults assume that children who are exposed regularly to parental disputes get used to them, or become desensitized.  Research undertaken since the 1980s, however, suggests that children’s responses to continued conflict are actually quite the opposite i.e. that children become increasingly sensitive to their parents’ ongoing conflict. 

But what is actually meant by parental conflict?  Some parental conflict is positive and usually, so far as children are concerned, includes conflict that is resolved constructively, such as:

  • when both parents compromise;
  • agree to disagree; or
  • one apologizes and both move forward. 

The conflict parents need to be mindful of is the kind that is negative in nature, particularly if there is a repeat pattern to it i.e. not just the ordinary or occasional difference of opinion, but a real difficulty in making parenting decisions cooperatively.  This type of conflict includes:

  • an unresolved argument, particularly if it is about the children;
  • the silent treatment or a lingering tension because an issue is unresolved;
  • verbal disputes;
  • physical fighting; and
  • other forms of domestic abuse, such as controlling and coercive behaviour.

Many of us think that if we’re not actually fighting verbally or physically, we have succeeded in closing the dispute down, and we and the children are therefore shielded or protected from it.  Research suggests that this isn’t the case.

Children’s sensitisation to parental conflict was actually first documented in the 1980s.   Researchers found that children who saw arguments regularly became more ‘attuned’ or ‘sensitive’ to them.  This included:

  • responding by copycatting angry behaviour they witnessed by playing more aggressively with peers, for example;
  • trying to comfort a distressed parent, for example with cuddles or wiping away tears; or
  • becoming involved in their parents’ disputes. 

When researchers exposed or observed children in these types of scenarios, there was a marked difference in the reactions of children whose parents typically did not argue regularly as compared with those whose parents did.  Those whose parents argued little hardly reacted to the conflict they witnessed, whereas those whose parents did quickly became attuned and responded more sensitively.  In other words, there was a clear correlation between more exposure and the child’s reaction, meaning that those exposed more frequently are vulnerable to the effects of their parents’ conflict.

The research shows that, when a child is actually responding, for example to comfort a parent, it may help the child cope in that moment.  However, over a period of time a child may develop unhelpful patterns of dealing with conflict, which can spill into all areas of their lives, such as within friendships, future romantic relationships, teachers or in the workplace.

As ever, this blog and site is intended to bring a positive approach to things and with that in mind we always focus on potential solutions.  So what, as parents, can we consider doing differently?

If you are aware that you and your child’s other parent struggle, think about the following:

  • First and foremost, are you both prepared to acknowledge that your communication could be improved and that you would both like to try to do something to change it?  It is easy to conclude that it is mostly or entirely the fault of the other person, but every communication involves two individuals and both can work on ways to improve things.
  • Can you identify which type of parental communication style you have?  Do you both shout, does one of you shout and the other fall silent, or do you both give up and ignore one another and more or less operate in parallel?  Or does one of you like a great deal of planning and detail while the other is very laissez-faire and this causes continuous tension or misunderstandings and exhaustion? It is helpful to recognize that none of these outcomes or strategies are very constructive and can make children feel anxious about a tension or issue that is unresolved.  Just identifying this and looking for ways to support one another can go a long way to improving things, even if only a little.
  • If you can recognize challenging communications between you, what can you differently?  Can you set aside a quiet time each week, or month, to talk about the children and anything that might be concerning you?  Make sure you really listen to what the other person is saying, and what their concerns are.  If necessary write them down and then summarise them back to one another, so that you both know you have heard the other and truly understood the other’s concerns.
  • Try not to react in the moment.  Take time to reflect and consider what is being requested and why.  Try to brainstorm a number of solutions together i.e. not just my position or your position as the only two outcomes, but what other solutions might be available to you, so that you avoid complete black and white thinking about things i.e. it’s my way or the highway!
  • Ask one another what each of your children would feel and write it down.  What is their position on the issue in question?  Can you try something for a period of time, then review together and see how you think it suited you all?
  • Try to shield children from the conflict, particularly if it is about them.  However, let children know if appropriate and in an age appropriate manner any decisions you have come to, that is it not your child’s fault or responsibility, and that you have discussed things together such that any issue has been resolved. If you can’t resolve it, find a way to park it and look to other issues that are easier to find a mutually acceptable solution for.
  • Remember to acknowledge the positive decisions you have been able to make together, and the positives about each of you and your parenting relationship.  Otherwise, it is easy to look only at what isn’t working and the negative elements of one another. 

References:

  • Children and Marital Conflict, The Impact of Family Dispute and Resolution – E. Mark Cummings and Patrick Davies, (1994, The Guilford Press).
  • Parental Conflict, Outcomes and interventions for children and families, Jenny Reynolds, Catherine Houlston, Lester Coleman and Gordon Harold, (2014, The Policy Press)