My Baby Stopped Crying; Can Screaming Arguments Affect Him?

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Reader’s Question

If an infant is exposed to loud, screaming arguments right next to him (usually in the arms of one of the people involved in the argument) and then usually becomes completely silent for several minutes, even if previously crying before the screaming began, what effect could this be having on the infant?

Thank you for your time. It’s very important to me. Thanks again.

Psychologist’s Reply

Very often we think that infants are not listening to us or can’t comprehend what’s going on around them. In truth, infants are always watching, always absorbing information from their environment. Of course, they don’t understand things as we do. They have no context in which to place a new experience. Everything that happens to them is new, without precedent. But infants are hungry to be safe. They need to be safe to survive. Because they are so vulnerable, they are sensitive to warning signs of danger. At the first sign of danger, they cry out in distress and signal their need to be soothed and kept safe. If they receive that soothing, then they quickly recover. If they do not, then they need to adapt in a way that protects them in the moment, even if their adaptation becomes problematic in the future.

The way we adapt as infants sets up patterns of behavior that we tend to follow even as adults. If we cry and receive soothing as little ones, then we come to expect that the world truly is safe and we can survive most distress. When we do not receive that basic level of soothing, then we can adapt to it in a variety of ways. One way to adapt is to withdraw, to shy away, to become silent and invisible. We play possum. We think that, if we turn away so we can’t see the scary, angry person, then he can’t see us either. That might be successful in the moment. The infant in your arms may hide in silence to prevent drawing unwanted attention to himself. When that infant grows to adulthood, however, withdrawing from fear can sabotage his ability to take risks, face challenges, or even have the basic emotional experience of fear. He might experience fear as a sense of emotional numbness.

No single incident can bring about the personality changes I’m describing. However, constant exposure to domestic violence — and you are describing domestic violence — is the greatest predictor of maladaptive development in adults.

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If the adults in your scenario can’t argue in low tones of voice, then they should consider arguing in a place where the baby cannot witness it. Take the argument out to the car. Take it into a counseling session. Have the argument but keep in mind the need to keep each of you safe, especially the baby. Hopefully, the arguments will be constructive and each party will be guided by the best interest of the family. The baby will remember how you argue, not what you argue about. Even as adults, how we argue is just as important as what we argue about. When we can have an argument and still show each other mutual respect, then the arguing becomes safe and we learn that we can disagree with each other without withdrawing from each other in fear.

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