Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Parental Fighting Scared Our Child

QUESTION: About a year ago, my husband and I lost our temper after our children threw a huge fit in a grocery store. As my husband was putting our son in the car he got a large scratch on his leg. I was very angry with my husband and I lost control -- yelling, hitting and kicking him. Unfortunately, my kids witnessed this, and my three-year-old daughter was crying for me to call 911. Now, my son acts like nothing happened, but my daughter refuses to get close to her dad. This hasn't happened since, and both my husband and I are very remorseful. What can we do now?

ANSWER: Your daughter was no doubt terrified by the violent outbreak between her parents. Her attempt to "help" indicates the level of danger she felt, as well as the distrust she had that the two of you would be able to safely resolve your struggle. It is possible that your daughter's trust in her parents ability to work things out was broken and she felt forced to resolve it by choosing sides.

Physical safety is secured by having a "bigger" person protect you. When children perceive a serious struggle between their parents, it is natural for them to protect their own survival. Your daughter may view you as a primary caretaker, and therefore, her "protector." This survival-oriented reaction may have hurt her relationship with her father. It is important that you and your husband repair it.

Consider the different ways that you can support and encourage her to have a secure relationship with her father. Ask your husband to become involved by spending special one-on-one time with her on a weekly (or more frequent) basis. Trips to the zoo, father-daughter movies, or other activities may help her re-establish her relationship with him. Create situations where she can learn to rely on him instead of you. Then she will be able to depend on him as a safe and reliable parent.

It is possible that engaging in these activities will bring out submerged feelings about the traumatic event. This could result in a valuable opportunity to review the event and reassure her. Do not sidestep your daughter's feelings about the occurrence. Accept her interpretation, listen to her story, and evaluate how you want to explain your own, and your husband's, reactions. Include reasons why this will not happen again. It is also helpful to let your child know when you have gone to counseling for help. It relieves children of the self-inflicted responsibility they might feel to solve your marital conflicts.

It is important to let your daughter know that what you did was wrong and that you should not have reacted by hitting and kicking her father. Accept responsibility for your "out of control" behavior and let your child know what steps you have taken to correct your own reactions and behavior. Be sure to present these ideas in terms that a young child can comprehend. For example, "We have been to a 'talking doctor' to help your father and I fix how we fight and we have agreed to use our words from now on". Also, be sure to reflect her fear, apologize, and ask that she give you feedback. For example, "We are sorry we frightened you and we will not let that happen again. Let us know if anything we do or say scares you in any way." You should also ask your husband to have similar conversations with her.

Your honesty and trustworthiness to admit and correct mistakes will not only facilitate healing, but will set a tone for family problem solving through teamwork. Your children will discover that we all make mistakes, but more importantly they will learn how to deal with their own blunders in a productive, rather than destructive, manner. You can feel pride in the fact that you are raising a family capable of learning from their mistakes, rather than repeating them. Your daughter will likely feel loved and reassured by your attention to her feelings. If what you say to her is true, she will gradually regain the trust she lost.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com