you are perfect and never fight with your partner, then stop reading now and start to write down your secret to a perfect relationship – I would say you will sell many copies of these notes! If however, you are like the majority of couples and do have disagreements then is it okay to fight in front of the kids? There is no one right answer to this – a lot depends on the frequency, nature and communications in an argument. The main thing is to keep it to a minimum. Let’s look a little further into this and draw on some research that has been carried out by experts over the years.
Often parents do not realise the effect that their conflicts are having on the children. However, children are sensitive to their parents’ relationship from a very early age. They are like mini Geiger counters – if parents are fighting the children will know, if the parents resolve the disagreement, the children will also know. Psychologists and counselors have long been aware of the ill effects fighting has on children. Verbal conflict with demeaning put downs on the other partner, or sudden outbursts and threats, is damaging to a child’s emotional and physical well being. In a six year US government study involving more than 2000 families, stress levels of children were measured while watching their parents fight. It was determined they reacted with an increased heart rate, faster breathing and more sweat gland activity. The results, say the statistics? “These children get sick more frequently, tend to become more aggressive, have more depression and anxiety, and don’t sleep as well as children from lower conflict homes.” There is no doubt that children witnessing parents fighting has a huge effect on them.
On the other hand, never fighting is not necessarily best for the children either. Studies have shown that children who rarely witness an argument between parents are often not able to assert themselves; stand up for themselves with peers and can be afraid of conflict. They may feel that relationships that have fights or disagreements are bad relationships.
So maybe it is okay to have the odd argument in front of the children? Expecting two parents never to argue would be a lot to ask. In fact, research has shown that there’s nothing wrong with children occasionally being exposed to some kinds of family-related conflict because conflict is a part of life. The important word in this sentence is ‘occasionally’ – it is never okay for children to witness parents arguing a lot around children.
So is it ever okay to argue in front the children? The short answer is yes, if it is not too often and as long as the parents argue ‘properly’ or within certain ‘rules’. An occasional disagreement – call it a “heated negotiation” – during which you treat each other with respect and move into problem-solving, say therapists, is actually a good thing for kids. It’s considered a form of role modeling. But arguments in which you repeat the same points over and over, or call each other names – where you are venting resentments rather than solving problems – have no up side for the children. If you bully one another, your kids learn to bully others and they will turn that treatment right back on you once they are teenagers.
If you do fight and the children witness it, what can you do to minimise the effect on the children while helping them to learn some life skills at the same time? Firstly, don’t pretend it didn’t happen or sweep it under the carpet. As soon as you can, apologise to the children about the conflict (doing this together with your partner is the best way). Reassure them that you love each other. Mention specifically, in age-appropriate terms, how you would have liked to talk about the conflict. For example: “I’m sorry Daddy and I were arguing last night. We both feel bad when we say bad words. We can work things out better when we don’t interrupt each other and use soft voices.” Be careful however, that these are not simply empty words. You can apologise only so many times, after a while, the words will ring false. You cannot apologise to your children and then argue again over and over, you must seek help in reducing the arguments and keeping them to a minimum in front of the child. Here are a few tips to help to keep arguments under control:
- Argue as though the neighbors are able to hear you
- No name-calling, no bad language, no raised voices.
- Actively use your listening skills.
- Give direct eye contact and do nothing else while your spouse is talking. Nod your head, no matter what they are saying.
- Repeat what the person has said. Use as many of the same words as possible.
- Sympathize. Let the other person know you understand that they are feeling bad, even if they are blaming you for the problem.
- Ask, “Is there anything more you want to tell me?” Give your partner a chance to discover deeper feelings, and to shift to a calmer, more neutral place.
If you find yourself getting carried away, then press your PAUSE button (this will be familiar to those of you who have attended our parenting classes!). Stop right there and agree to talk later. Then make a time to sit down and have a real discussion about what is bothering you -the bigger issues of your life and your marriage. Importantly, do it when your children do not have to be an audience.
What’s really important is how you behave during the disagreements and also how you and your partner resolve them. You want your child to learn that the family is a safe place to air conflict, and that conflicts can be resolved without resorting to name-calling or blaming or, especially, physical violence. So in as much as they have witnessed the fight, they should also be involved in witnessing the ‘making up’. Make sure to take them aside and reassure them that they’re loved and the argument isn’t their fault. Explain a little about the argument and then show them that as a couple, you have made it up. Let them witness you two having a hug, having a cup of tea and a chat etc., so they see that you are made up and things are back to normal.
If you do feel that you need help with your relationship, then get some help! There are many relationship counselors, marriage support agencies and other services available. Some useful websites are www.AccessCounselling.ie , www.MRCS.ie www.accord.ie or check out your local parish or community centre.