Let’s be honest. We probably already do fight in front of the kids. Whatever you want to call them—“polite” disagreements, heated arguments, emotional debates, full-on shouting matches—we have them. We don’t necessarily plan to; they can just happen. A calm, respectful conversation can escalate quickly to savage verbal bloodsport. And guess who is taking it all in?
There is definitely a marital dimension to how you fight, over what, how often, and how you make up. But what about the parental dimension? What about that little person at the dinner table, or playing within earshot, hearing the brawl through the wall?
We have a large body of research on how “interparental conflict” or fighting affects kids.
Here’s what we know:
- Kindergartners whose parents had harsh and frequent fights were more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and behavior issues by the time they were in seventh grade.
- When parents are fighting, it’s physiologically traumatic for kids. Their blood pressure increases (even in very young babies).
- If you play audio of two adults fighting who are not the parents of a child, even that has a negative effect on the child.
- Depression, anxiety, rule-breaking, and aggression can be a behavior of a child who experiences their parents disagreeing regularly.
- Arguing in front of a child can be incredibly damaging to their psyche, as it creates a sense of instability and insecurity. This can manifest as guilt and a feeling of responsibility, leading to lifelong feelings of inadequacy.
- Parents tend to have their worst fights in front of their children.
- Family discord can actually alter children’s brains and make them process emotions differently. So, kids who witness their parents arguing a lot at home may struggle in social situations and have trouble making friends.
- Regardless of what parents are fighting about, children tend to blame themselves.
- The typical married couple has about eight “disputes” a day. Children witnessed their parents’ arguments about 45 percent of the time.
Here’s the thing: kids are smarter than we realize or think they are, and their development and intelligence begin at birth. Here’s the other thing: fighting, arguing, tension, instability, and volatility all have an effect on children whether we perceive it immediately or not. Here’s yet another thing: disagreeing, arguing, and even fighting are part of marriage.
★ So, how do we as parents mitigate the negative effects of fighting in front of the kids?
Story Time. Average American Family. (Mine.)
Sitting at the dinner table, son (6th grade) says he wants to try out for the school football team.
(Seemingly benign statement.) Not an uncommon thing to talk about at dinner. My wife immediately encourages him to try out. I counter with my uncertainty about football and brain health. (Still a civil conversation.) We go back and forth a bit. (Voices get a little louder and a little more intense.) My son is chiming in here and there. (It becomes clear that my wife and I are not on the same page on this.) She’s thinking I’m being overly cautious and robbing our son of fun and character-building. I’m thinking she is being cavalier with our son’s brain and there are other ways to have fun and build character. (This could quickly get personal. And ugly.)
What happens next is so important. And it is so simple. But our emotions usually have their way with us and innocent, common, organic conversations quickly escalate into harsh and harmful fighting that hurts our kids. My wife simply says, “Why don’t we discuss this later?” Me, “Dude, your mom and I will talk this through and let you know what we decide.” Conversation changes. Dinner is enjoyed. No harm done. Our son saw us disagree, have a debate, and stay on the same team.
Here’s what else we know:
- Parents who can resolve conflicts and emerge with warm feelings toward each other instill better coping skills and emotional security in children, studies show. This requires admirable self-control, and not all marital battles can be worked out so calmly.
- Marital battles that spark uncontrolled emotional outbursts should happen in private or in the presence of a therapist, and name-calling, threats, or other forms of aggression are never okay. But seeing Mom and Dad emerge from less hard-to-control disagreements satisfied, without resentment, can yield big rewards for children, according to researchers and experts in conflict resolution.
- Parents who expressed warmth and empathy toward each other during arguments also fostered a sense of security in their children that their families would be okay, according to a two-year study of 416 U.S. families.
- The research complements findings from a 2009 study by Dr. E. Mark Cummings that children whose parents have constructive conflicts, showing support and affection for each other, exhibit better social skills, including cooperation and empathy for peers.
- Even if parents fight sometimes, a higher ratio of positive to negative exchanges is linked to less sadness and worry in children and teens, according to a recent five-year study of 809 families. Displays of warmth and mutual support helped offset children’s fears about parental discord.
It’s not whether parents fight, but how they fight in front of the kids that matters. And how they make up.
All conflict between parents is not harmful to children, but some conflicts may be very harmful for children to observe. Children may even benefit from observing constructive conflicts. However, destructive conflicts are linked to multiple problems in children and are stressful for them to hear or witness. Click HERE for how to fight in front of your kids.
***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.***