How to do damage control when you fight in front of your kids
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.
This 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 deep inside, and it pops out in anxiety, defiance or misbehaviour.
Maybe worst of all, when adults yell at each other, it gives children the message that when humans have disagreements, yelling is the “grownup” way to handle them.
A healthy resolution
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 feel they’re in the wrong. Even when tempers get a little hot, if you can resolve things quickly and your children see you repair and reconnect, you’re modelling 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 humour 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.
Try out these scenarios, which are terrific modelling for your child:
- 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 modelling that anyone can get angry, but that we can take responsibility for our own emotions, apologise, and reconnect. You’ll see your child start to apologise and course correct, too.
- 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.
- 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 modelling 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 prioritise 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.
Troubleshooting for peace
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 counselling 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 a lot more love than criticism. That’s good for your relationship, too, since 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.
According to Mark Cummings’ research reported in Po Bronson’s book Nurture Shock, Bronson reports that as long as parents “made up” with each other afteran 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 merely disagreeing with each other, not yelling. And there was no disrespect or insult in these scripted encounters. With repeated research Cummings has already established 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. When the children also saw the adults resolving the argument with affection, they were fine afterwards. However, 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 amend the negative effects of yelling and disrespect.
What you need to remember?
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 goodwill, looking for solutions instead of blame. If we yell or express disrespect, it’s an emotional risk factor for children.
Of course, acting with 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 have 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. The key is to start now.