Many parents are guilty of doing this, even if it was only once. But according to experts, arguing in front of the children is a total no-no. We examine why.
According to arguably the most popular mental health professional in the world, Dr Phil McGraw — fighting in front of the kids is nothing short of abuse.
Children learn by way of example, which is why it is very important to stop and think about what you’re teaching them. Dr Phil says when caught in an argument, you have one of two choices. “Either you vent your impulse or love your children. Those are mutually exclusive. When you fight in front of your kids, you are putting your need to explode ahead of the kid’s best interest and peace of mind,” he says.
Growing up in a violent home
Children who grow up in violent homes are more likely to become depressed, antisocial or violent themselves. But new research shows that children who are exposed to high levels of family conflict or experience physical abuse share a pattern of brain reactivity similar to that of soldiers in combat.
While your home may not be chaotic, or as volatile as a battle field, even occasional fights with your partner may be just as stressful for children to see. When this stress is sufficiently increased, it is “likely to have a measurable effect on their brain development,” says Eamon McCrory, Ph.D., coauthor of the study from University College London.
“Children start by being frightened by their parents arguing,” says Dr. John W. Jacobs, M.D., author of All You Need Is Love and Other Lies about Marriage. But later, they become appalled. ‘How can they live like this?’ they wonder. “Eventually, they develop a fear of being similarly trapped, and as adults may have the tendency to bail out of relationships early.” Jacobs says that while much is written about the damage caused by divorce, the damage is even worse for children whose parents stay in unhappy, bitter, explosive marriages.”
Stop and think
It is important for parents to stop and think about what they are fighting about? And whether it is worth destroying their children’s harmony?
“There are important issues in every marriage that need to be discussed. Turn the volume down to deal with them,” suggests Dr Phil. “Stop being a right-fighter. The kids don’t care who’s right. “They want you to shut up.”
Fight the right way
We all know that it is unrealistic for anyone to expect constant agreement in any relationship. That is why it is very important to let it all out. “Unspoken tension can be more stressful than actual fighting,” says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and family counselor in New York City.
“Kids will fill in the blanks of what you’re not talking about and will let their imaginations run wild.” Which is why it’s best to address the issues quickly, before the silent treatment sets in.
Model the kind of behaviour you would like your child to practise. Your child will encounter their own tensions on the playground, and how they deal with these situations will be based largely on what they have witnessed. Avoid derogatory words, but do express your feelings (I feel angry because…) and always keep your hands to yourself.
Disagreeing in front of the children can teach them an important lesson – that people can disagree from time to time, yet still remain connected. “Disputes don’t terminate relationships,” says Dorfman. Talk to your children about it. Tell them “Mommy and Daddy fight sometimes, but we always love each other and we’ll work it out.” If your children saw you fighting, make sure that they also see you reconcile. Also it should be a real reconciliation, as they will see that it’s fake.
Witnessing the fights
If kids witness a bad argument, don’t pretend it didn’t happen, says Dr. Carol Ummel Lindquist, Ph.D., author of Happily Married with Kids and happilymarriedwithkids.com.
“Go ahead and apologize to them. 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.”
But you can’t rely on apologising after every fight, says Jacobs. After a while, this won’t be effective, and you should get some help if you are unable to tone down the fights.
Keep Arguments under Control
- Argue as though the neighbours can hear says Lindquist. No name-calling, no foul language, no raised voices.
- Use your listening skills.
- Give direct eye contact and do nothing else while your spouse is talking. Look riveted. Nod your head, no matter what they are saying.
- Repeat what the person has said. Use as many of the same words as possible to make sure they see and hear that you are listening.
- Let your partner know that you understand what that they are feeling.
- Ask, “Is there anything more you want to tell me?” Give your partner the opportunity to offload and to become calmer.
“If you find yourself getting carried away”, advises Jacobs, “call a time-out.” Stop the argument, and agree to continue with a discussion later. And do it when your children do not have to be an audience. At the end of the day the only person that you control is you. Choose to control your urges.