Aha! Parenting Blog

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How To Do Damage Control When You Fight In Front of Your Kids

"Yesterday my husband and I had an argument at dinner time in front of the kids. My four year old daughter yelled at us to ‘Be quiet!’ …  My two year old had a tough time going to bed, which is unusual for him. Could that have had to do with mommy and daddy arguing?”

In honor of Valentines Day this week, my next two posts are about the intersection between being a parent and being a couple -- specifically, how to work through conflicts when you're in front of your children.

Conflict is part of every human relationship. If we live with children, those conflicts will sometimes come up in front of the kids. In the past, most experts reassured parents that there’s no harm in children seeing them fight, as long as the kids also see the parents make up afterwards. However, recent developments in neurological research challenge this view. Not surprisingly, it turns out that when children hear angry yelling, their stress hormones shoot up. In fact, even a sleeping infant registers loud, angry voices and experiences a rush of stress chemicals that takes some time to diminish.

So the research confirms what any child can tell you, which is that it’s frightening when adults yell at each other. After all, parents are the child’s source of security. When parents seem out of control, the world becomes a scary place. This stress response can make it difficult for kids to fall asleep, because the stress hormones can stay in the child’s body for hours. Since kids can’t turn to the arguing adults for comfort, they stuff their fear, and it pops out in anxiety, defiance or misbehavior.

Maybe worst of all, when adults yell at each other, it gives children the message that when humans have disagreements, yelling is the “grown up” way to handle them.

Is it ever okay for parents to disagree in front of kids? Yes! It's terrific for children to see adults disagree with each other respectfully, and ask for what they need without making the other person wrong. Even when tempers get a little hot, if you can resolve things quickly and your children see you repair and reconnect, you're modeling the resilience of relationships.

So by all means, go ahead and work through differences that come up with your partner in front of your kids. But agree in advance that if your disagreement disintegrates into yelling or disrespect, you'll put off the fight until you're behind closed doors. In those cases, be sure to summon up your sense of humor as soon as things start to get heated, and close the "public" phase of your discussion with a hug, so your child can relax, knowing that no matter how difficult the discussion, the adults are still committed to working things out positively.

These scenarios are actually terrific modeling for your child:

1. One parent snaps at the other, then immediately course corrects: “I’m so sorry – I’m just feeling stressed – can we try that over? What I meant to say was…”  Kids learn from this modeling that anyone can get angry, but that we can take responsibility for our own emotions, apologize, and re-connect. You'll see your child start to apologize and course correct, too.

2. Parents work through a difference of opinion without getting triggered and raising their voices. For instance, if you and your partner have a good-natured discussion about who should clean the toilet or whether to buy a new car, your child learns that humans who live together can have different needs and opinions, listen to each other, and work toward a win/win decision – all respectfully and with affection.

3. Parents notice that they have a conflict brewing and agree to discuss it later. Hopefully, this happens before there’s any yelling -- or you’ll be modeling yelling. And hopefully, you can close the interaction with a big, public, hug. If you're too mad, take some space to calm down and then prioritize the hug in front of your child, with a family mantra like “It’s okay to get mad....You can be mad at someone and still love them at the same time .… We always work things out.”  This takes maturity, but it models self-regulation and repair. And it's crucial to restoring your child's sense of safety.

But what if you’ve fought with your partner in front of your child, and you wouldn't exactly call the things you said respectful? Don’t panic. The risk factor for the child comes from repeated experiences. So if you're fighting in front of your child regularly, that's a red flag that you and your partner need some counseling or other help.

Try this experiment: Consider your interactions with your partner through your child's eyes for a few days, to be sure your child is seeing his parents expressing lots more love than criticism. That's good for your relationship, too, since the research by The Gottman Institute, the leading researchers on couples, shows that keeping a positive relationship requires five positive interactions to make up for each negative interaction. 

The Research

Are you wondering about the research by Mark Cummings, reported in Po Bronson's book Nurture Shock? Bronson reports that as long as parents "made up" with each other after the argument, the children recovered without damage from the incident. BUT as Bronson says, and as Cummings the researcher stressed, the parents in this research were disagreeing, not yelling. And there was no disrespect or insult in these scripted encounters. Cummings has already established, with repeated research, that yelling and disrespect between parents is damaging to kids. In these studies he wanted to find out whether "plain old everyday conflict" -- just ordinary non-yelling disagreements -- were also a problem. 

So Cummings scripted encounters like those described above, in which the parents had a difference of opinion but did not yell at each other. As it turned out, even these disagreements were very upsetting to the children who witnessed them. Happily, when the children also saw the adults "resolving" the argument with affection, the kids were fine afterwards. But Cummings and other researchers have repeatedly found that yelling and disrespect are extremely distressing to children, so simply "making up" in front of kids cannot ameliorate the negative effects of yelling and disrespect. 

Bottom line: All couples have disagreements, but adult fierceness is always scary to kids. Children will recover if we handle our disagreements with respect and good will, looking for solutions instead of blame. If we yell or express disrespect, it's an emotional risk factor for children.

And of course, respect and refraining from yelling is best for our partnerships, too. Anger is a message to us about what we need. There's always a way to ask for what we need without attacking the other person. It's never appropriate to dump anger on another person, in front of your kids or not. 

Not so easy to do? You're right. Most of us never learned how to manage our own emotions, express our needs without attacking, and handle conflict in a healthy way.  But every couple can learn healthy conflict resolution. And you can repair things with your kids if you've been fighting in front of them. We'll get into these questions in our next post:

12 Keys To Healthy Partnership Conflict Resolution When you Live With Kids

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