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By: Mozelle Forman, Lcsw

If I were to tell you the single most crucial factor in your child’s psychological development was the quality of your marriage what would you think?

Well, here is what the experts have found. A longitudinal study, a study conducted over time, published in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the quality of a child's parents' marriage had as much influence on his or her future mental and physical health and well-being as his or her own relationship with either parent.

Drs. John Gottman and Lynn Katz also conducted a three-year longitudinal study that resulted in these findings: there is now convincing evidence to suggest that marital distress and conflict are associated with a wide range of deleterious outcomes for the children, including depression, withdrawal, poor social competence, health problems, poor academic performance, and a variety of conduct-related behaviors including exhibiting mild forms of antisocial behavior.

Pretty serious stuff! The takeaway from these findings: The single most important thing that you can do for your children is to do everything in your power to have the best possible relationship with your spouse. If your children see the two of you getting along and supporting each other, they will mirror you, and will likely get along with each other and their friends. Every single ounce of energy that you put into your relationship will come back to you tenfold through your children.

So, what are our children watching and learning? Parents are our first example of how to communicate, develop, and maintain relationships. Whether parents know it or not, their children are watching, and developing their own ideas. Parents don't often discuss the process of what it means to be in a relationship, and children draw conclusions based on what they see happen between you and your spouse – especially when there is disagreement between the two of you. Rabbi Jonathan Rietti believes that it is not conflict that causes difficulty in relationships. Rather, it is how we handle the conflict that can make or break our relationships.

So how do we, as parents, model good conflict resolution skills for our children while enhancing our marital relationship? The key is to “fight fair.” According to Michael Osit, EdD, a clinical psychologist who works with families, it's important that your children don't see out-of-control rage. "They should understand that parents can get mad at each other and still love each other," he says.By approaching conflict with respect for each other’s opinions, free from criticism or name-calling, children learn fair fighting.

Solving a problem before it escalates into a fight is the key, and when handled well helps children to learn negotiating skills. While Dr. Osit recommends avoiding ongoing fights in front of the kids, hashing out disagreements that are quickly solvable can benefit your children. "It's good for children to hear that your opinions differ on, say, what furniture to buy or where togo out for dinner," he says. These are opportunities to model how you'd want your kids to argue: with a goal of reaching a compromise, not just winning. They can learn to negotiate by observing you. They also learn to problem-solve, listen to things they may not agree with, consider each other's wants and needs, and stick with a discussion until a solution is reached. Through conflict - and conflict resolution - you're teaching them how to manage their own lives with classmates at school, siblings at home,and eventually, their spouses and colleagues at work.

Some psychologists believe that witnessing conflict and conflict resolution is essential to your children’s mental health, as it prepares them for the fact that conflict is a normal part of healthy relationships. If you give your children the impression that their family is conflict-free, then they won't be prepared to handle conflict in the outside world. In homes where parents never openly communicate differences kids “learn” that you must always agree with your loved ones. So, when they have disagreements later on in their own lives, they assume the relationship is ruined because of disagreements, or that there's something wrong with them.

The way you interact with your child and live your life will be your child’s greatest teacher. Kids are incredibly observant and they are always watching. This can be slightly inconvenient for parents. But if we’re able to keep in mind that our children are watching our actions, we will not only teach them how to behave, but it will make us better people.

So, ignore the old adage “never fight in front of the kids.” Only do it well!

Mozelle Forman has been in private practice for 20 years.
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