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Family Dynamics: Symptoms in Children as a Result of Marital Quarrels

family conflict

In the complex web of family relationships, children often serve as the subtlest gauge, reflecting the unspoken struggle and discord within the household. When children exhibit physical or mental illnesses for no apparent reason, it can often be attributed to a deeper source: the instability and conflicts in their parents' relationship. In this article, entitled "Family Dynamics: Symptoms in Children as a Result of Marital Quarrels," I aim to shed light on this subject.

Children, who naturally crave stability and peace, may unconsciously adopt roles or show symptoms that distract from the marital problems troubling their parents. When children begin to exhibit unexplained physical or mental symptoms, parents often look for immediate explanations, ignoring the possibility that these problems may be rooted in deeper, more complex family dynamics.

Children may, consciously or unconsciously, exhibit symptoms as a means of distracting from their parents' unresolved marital conflicts.

Family Dynamics: The Parental Child

The 'Parental Child' Phenomenon

The phenomenon arises when children, sensing the vulnerability of their family structure, take on roles beyond their emotional maturity or developmental stage, aiming to fix or soften the conflict between their parents.

These roles can take various forms, from trying to bridge conflicts, offering emotional support to one or both parents, or adopting behaviors aimed at diverting attention from marital problems.

This role reversal, despite its good intentions, can profoundly affect the child's emotional and psychological growth. It creates an environment where the child's natural developmental process is overshadowed by the burden of adult worries, paving the way for future emotional challenges.

Identifying Common Signs that Children Exhibit

Children often absorb and respond to the emotional atmosphere in their home. When exposed to parental conflict, they may exhibit various signs that reflect their internal struggle.

Physical Symptoms

Children may present physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or other unexplained ailments. These physical manifestations can be a direct response to the stress and tension they perceive in their environment.

Behavioral Changes

Children might also show behavioral changes, such as becoming unusually quiet or withdrawn, exhibiting aggressive behavior, or displaying excessive worry or anxiety. These behaviors, while demonstrating the child's ability to adapt, highlight the profound effect that parental conflict can have on their young minds. They may resort to extraordinary measures to restore harmony or to feel seen and heard.

Recognizing these signs is crucial for addressing the underlying issues and supporting the child's emotional well-being.

Basic Reasons for Behavior

The behaviors that children demonstrate in response to their parents' marital problems are not arbitrary; they are deeply rooted in the child's instinctive need for security, stability, and a sense of belonging in the family. These underlying reasons are multifaceted, including emotional, psychological, and sometimes survival instincts, which drive children to take drastic measures to maintain the appearance of a harmonious home environment.

  • First, children are empathetic and sensitive by nature to the emotional energies in their environment.

  • Another reason lies in the innate fear of abandonment or the collapse of the family structure.

  • Children are also motivated by a need for attention and approval from their parents.

  • Finally, these behaviors may be driven by a subconscious effort to restore balance and reduce tension within the household.

Understanding these underlying causes is essential for parents to respond with empathy to their children's behaviors, accepting them not as acts of defiance or attention-seeking but as expressions of deeper emotional upheaval and needs.

family in conflict

Possible Long-Term Effects on Children

The consequences of children taking on adult roles and responsibilities due to their parents' marital conflicts can be profound and long-lasting.

One of the most significant long-term effects is the development of anxiety and stress-related disorders.

Children who often distract themselves from their parents' problems may also struggle with emotional regulation and self-esteem issues as they grow older.

In addition, these children may experience difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships.

Understanding and alleviating these potential long-term effects requires a family-centered approach to address the underlying causes of the child's behavior and offer a path to healing and healthier relationships in the future.

Proposed Solution: Counseling and Training for Parents within the Framework of Couple Therapy Based on Family Constellation

Training for parents within the framework of couple therapy based on family constellation enables the investigation and resolution of deep-seated problems within family dynamics.

Regarding children affected by their parents' marital dynamics, couple therapy based on family constellation helps reveal the connections between the parents' relationship and the child's behaviors or illnesses.

The Starting Point

A therapeutic process with this approach can provide insights into how parental conflicts may affect the child and suggest ways to reduce this effect.

The treatment includes the establishment of "constellations"—representations of the family system using objects that stand in for family members. This technique allows the parents to see the dynamic from a new angle, revealing hidden loyalties and complications. By identifying these hidden connections, a healing process begins that can resolve the child's symptoms.

Couple therapy based on family constellation aims to promote a more balanced family system, where each member assumes their proper position without getting involved in the problems of others.

This healing journey allows the family to achieve greater harmony and well-being, benefiting the symptomatic child.


Sivan Avni - a marriage and family counselor.


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