It started with a simple question from my son at the dinner table. “Can I invite a few friends to go to Six Flags Amusement Park with me for my birthday?” Would it end up as a fight in front of the kids?

Mom: That should be fun. How many friends are you thinking about?

Son: Two.

Mom: Sounds like a good idea.

Dad (Me): Hmmm. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea right now.

Mom: Really. Why not?

Dad: Have you looked at the cost for one person to go to Six Flags? Let alone 3 or 4. Have you looked at our bank account lately?

Mom: How many times does our son turn 10 years old?

At this point, we had a decision to make… 

  1. Do we continue this disagreement that was morphing into an argument in front of our kids? 
  2. Should we squash the conversation until we could get behind closed doors? 

We both were starting to recognize that we felt strongly about our opinions. Internally, we were questioning the next step of the discussion and asking,”Should we have this fight in front of the kids?”

I’m going to jump in with how we fight, or put another way, resolve disagreements and conflict in front of our children, if that’s where you find yourself. It is inevitable that you and your spouse will have a disagreement in front of your kids. How you handle these disagreements can have a great impact on them. 

If you choose to work through conflict with your spouse in front of your kids, here are a few tips:

1. Respect, Respect, Respect

  1. There is never a time when it’s okay to disrespect one another’s thoughts, feelings or desires regardless of how emotional you get or how strongly you feel about a particular issue. 
  2. It’s even worse to disrespect one another in front of your children. 
  3. We disrespect when we belittle one another’s thoughts, are dismissive of each other’s emotions and devalue each other’s desires. 
  4. Respecting one another is more important than coming to the “right” solution. 
  5. Dr. Adam Grant, a psychologist at the Wharton School and New York Times best-selling author states that, “When parents disagree thoughtfully and respectfully, that sets a standard for kids to learn to do the same thing.” 
  6. Your children are learning how to treat other people they disagree with based on what you show them.

If you realize you have disrespected your spouse, it’s important that you not only apologize to your spouse, but that you also talk with your children about it. They must understand that disrespect is not acceptable.

2. “I,” not “You.”

I could’ve said to my wife, “You don’t know how much money is in the bank.” But I could have also said, “You care more about him having fun than about us being responsible.” In that instance, I’ve attacked her and assumed what she knows or cares about. Dr. John Gottman, marriage therapist and researcher says, “When you start sentences with ‘I’ you are less likely to seem (or be!) critical, immediately putting your partner into a defensive position.” Instead of starting with “You,” I can say, “I’m concerned that paying for this trip may not leave us enough money for other necessary and important things.” 

☆ Focusing on what you know, think, feel, and want as opposed to making statements about what you believe your spouse knows, thinks, feels, and wants leads to better communication and understanding during conflict.

3. Avoid statements like, “You always,” or, “You never.

Statements like this make generalizations about a person’s character, placing the focus on them and putting them on the defensive while taking the focus away from the issue. 

4. Tone of Voice and Body Language Matter… a lot.

I encourage you to stop and watch kids talk and interact sometime. Many talk with their hands, give colorful facial expressions, their tone gets high when they’re excited and loud when they’re upset. This is the lens through which your child sees your body language and hears your tone of voice. Not to mention that research says 93% of communication is made with body language and tone of voice and only 7% are the actual spoken words. Avoid eye-rolling, sighing heavily like you’re disgusted, slumping your posture like you don’t care or rolling your neck like you have a bad attitude. Your children are reading each of the cues you’re sending.

5. Be clear to your children when it’s resolved.

Your child is processing what they see and hear. If they hear the conflict and are never privy to the solution, then you’ve left their imagination to wonder. Research by Dr. Rebecca Brock, assistant professor at University of Nebraska, indicates that unresolved marital tension can lead to children experiencing anxiety, depression, and distress

This may cause children to feel extremely insecure. 

If your child sees the two of you arguing, be sure they know and see that you’ve resolved the issue. Even if it’s just to say, “I know you heard us arguing earlier. I just want you to know that we figured it out and everything is good now.” The details of the solution may not be necessary to share. But the acknowledgment that the argument is not going to tear you apart helps bring closure for the child.

How Not To Fight

  • Never attack one another physically or emotionally. That’s domestic violence
  • Don’t manipulate, intimidate, or threaten your spouse. Threatening to walk out, leave the marriage, or do something that is hurtful or permanent can leave scars that wound for years.
  • Never put the kids in the middle of your argument. They should not be choosing sides or used as a pawn to help you win your argument.

What Not To Fight About In Front Of The Kids

There are some things that are simply a bad idea to argue about in front of the kids.

  • Sex
  • In-laws
  • Discipline

If you’re going to fight in front of the kids, then you should definitely make up in front of the kids. (No, not that kind of “make up.” Shame on you! 😳 ) A hug and a kiss in front of the kids is plenty. Verbally affirming your love, respect, and commitment for one another also sends the message that your commitment to one another is bigger than the disagreement. Arguing in front of your children can be damaging to them, especially when it’s not done in a healthy and productive manner. 

Model Healthy Conflict Resolution.

Studies show that your children can learn healthy conflict resolution skills when you model it for them. How you treat one another, including when you disagree, provides an example for how a couple communicates respect and acceptance. You’re also modeling how to effectively deal with your emotions and appreciate others emotions. These are all skills that will definitely be useful as your child engages in relationships throughout their life.

My son did get to go to Six Flags. After listening to me and his mother talk about our thoughts and feelings regarding the gift and adding up the cost, he had a greater appreciation for his gift. Did he know that I was not the one in support of the trip? Maybe, but I don’t think it bothered him as he, I, and his other friend rode the roller coasters. He also learned that his parents can disagree, both have strong opinions, and still love, respect, and remain committed to one another

★ What do you want your kids to learn when they see you fight?

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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