The unintended consequences of fighting in front of children
Saying what you mean is as important as not saying it in a mean way.
• Children are constantly learning behaviors from their parents, for better or for worse.
• While it may be impossible to avoid ever having a conflict in front of your kids, it’s important to remember that the way you engage is teaching them huge life lessons.
If you have kids of your own, then it’s likely that you already realize that children are little sponges that soak up everything happening around them. From the way you speak to the daily habits you engage in, you’re likely to find yourself reflected in your children’s behavior as they grow. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always just apply to the habits you’re proud of.
As nice as it’d be to have a pair of magical earmuffs you could slip onto your child at just the right moments, life has not been kind enough to provide such an option. So what happens when kids are around during the moments when you and your partner hit a huge emotional roadblock that results in an argument? As it turns out, it totally depends on how you work through it.
If you happen to have found a perfect relationship in which an argument has never managed to arise, then hats off to you. In the vast majority of human relationships, however, this is simply not realistic. The good news is that being a good parent isn’t always about avoiding conflict in front of your kids. What really matters is how you approach it.
It’s all about the approach
Rest assured that if you and your partner have ever had an argument in front of your children, it doesn’t necessarily make you bad parents as much as it makes you human. As E. Mark Cummings, a psychologist at Notre Dame University points out, there’s a big difference between positive and negative conflict resolution.
Cummings clarifies that “Conflict is a normal part of everyday experience, so it’s not whether parents fight that is important. It’s how the conflict is expressed and resolved, and especially how it makes children feel, that has important consequences for children.”
That said, there is definitely a point when a healthy disagreement crosses into a toxic interaction that it can be damaging for kids to witness. But where’s the line and how do you know you’re approaching it before it’s too late?
Cummings teamed up with Patrick Davies of the University of Rochester to explore just that question in the book Marital Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective. Throughout the book, they highlight negative conflict resolution habits that can affect children in a very real way.
The best and worst ways to handle arguments in front of children
Among the things it’s important to avoid when a conflict arises in front of your kids are:
• Verbal abuse in the form of name-calling, hurling insults, and threats of abandonment. Even if your partner understands that you’re just saying certain things in the heat of the moment, this is a far harder concept for children to grasp. Always keep in mind that kids see their home as their safe place and feelings of that safety being threatened can lead to a lack of security, fear of intimacy, withdrawal, and stress.
• Any physical aggression whatsoever. Hitting, pushing, or any other physically threatening actions between partners are incredibly traumatic for a child to witness. If either parent has ever displayed signs of physical violence it’s highly suggested you seek professional help. Once a child is ingrained with the idea that this sort of behavior is acceptable, it can be very hard to explain to them why it’s not a tactic they should use on others or allow to be used on themselves.
• The silent treatment in any form. This is not to say that it isn’t okay to ask your partner in a respectful way for time to think over the conflict or to ask to discuss it at a time when you’re better emotionally prepared. But simply storming out, sulking, or refusing to talk to your partner can give your child unhealthy ideas about avoiding problems in the hope that they’ll go away.
• Capitulation or simply giving in to the other parent in the attempt to avoid dealing with the problem can actually be as harmful as fighting. On the one hand, it may demonstrate to your child that the loudest or most hostile parent always wins. If this is true, then why wouldn’t they use the same tactic in order to attempt to get what they want, whether they’re right or not? On the other hand, it can leave them with the impression that arguments are to be avoided at all costs, even if it means refusing to communicate their own thoughts or needs.
As important as it is to avoid toxic fighting behaviors in front of children, allowing them to witness healthy conflict resolution can go a long way in helping them learn how to interact with others. Something as simple as arguing over where to eat dinner can provide the chance to allow kids to witness two people having a difference of opinion, making their desires heard, and compromising in an attempt to find a solution that makes both people happy.
So while you may want to try to save the heavy conversations for after your kids’ bedtimes, demonstrating that conflicts don’t have to be threatening or emotionally charged can go a long way in helping them learn to deal with the disagreements in their own lives.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
How to make your child feel safe and loved, even if you’re no longer together.
Help yourself avoid conflicts before they start by taking a look at these common accidental insults.