Many children don’t listen to their parents, especially when asked to engage in some tedious task like emptying the trash or cleaning their rooms. When Mom and Dad argue; however, most kids will stop what they are doing and—for better or worse—seriously listen to their parents’ impassioned conversation. While family conflict is inevitable, many wonder if it is ever acceptable to argue in front of the kids.
In the past, family experts often directed parents away from having outward disagreements in favor of private, behind-closed-door debates. Unfortunately, these well-intentioned individuals perpetuated the parenting myth that children should never see Mom and Dad passionately disagree. However, recent research indicates that these professionals may have been wrong, and that overhearing ‘heated negotiations’ actually is a healthy situation for children to experience.
Now, I am not actively advocating that parents engage in battle, but many modern psychological theories do consider that dismissing or delaying disagreements can be potentially detrimental to a child’s emotional development. In fact, as long as parents fight fairly, it is good for kids to see their mother and father having the occasional dispute.
Of course, it is never proper to participate in over-the-top, name-calling, knock-down, drag-out fights. But kids should understand that two people who spend a significant amount of time together will experience conflict, and it is how one handles a disagreement that differentiates acceptable arguing from harmful hollering.
The first rule of the ‘healthy’ family fight is that parents should be aware of what they are arguing about and where they arguing. While many children are mature beyond their years, certain topics should be avoided. Conflicts regarding intimacy, money, addiction or how to raise the kids should only occur in private. Moreover, these disputes should focus on a particular situation rather than a negative character trait. What parents fight about is as important as how they fight.
When arguments do emerge, it is essential that parents model appropriate communication strategies. Keep voices low as yelling escalates the situation, demonstrate listening by engaging in proper turn-taking exchanges, and respond with clarifying statements that convey understanding. If the discussion escalates into an angry, rambling rant, it is time to retreat to neutral corners and resolve the conflict at another time.
It also can be tempting to ask your child to provide an opinion regarding the debate. Don’t! This creates internal turmoil, as your child is forced to choose a side. All kids want to see is a proper resolution, and children should never have to divide loyalties.
Most important, end arguments properly. Keep discussions short and resolve the situation. Sometimes, this will mean agreeing to disagree. Later, talk to your children. Younger kids, in particular, often need reassurance that Mom and Dad are truly happy parents and that the conflict is over.
Children who see their parents engage in appropriate communication, which includes arguing, learn how to form healthy relationships, relieve stress and solve problems. In fact, children react to peers in the same manner that their parents react to each other. Through modeling proper behavior, parents are able to teach their kids how to ‘let off steam’ and successfully work out disagreements.
If, however, your household is terribly turbulent, don’t settle for an angry relationship and an uncomfortable atmosphere. Children of parents who engage in high-frequency fighting often experience depression, anxiety and long-lasting emotional scars. It is better to seek assistance from an outside professional than to expose your kids to an unhealthy marriage.
Prior to going into private practice as psychotherapist and learning disabilities specialist, Russell Hyken worked for more than 15 years as an English teacher, school counselor and school administrator. Visit him online at ed-psy.com