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Battleground: Fighting in Front of the Kids

When Ausa Faria, a North Texas mom of three, received a phone call from her daughter’s elementary school principal, she was caught off guard when she was quizzed on the state of her marriage. The school’s principal questioned the stability of the Farias’ relationship — all because their daughter became upset at school.

“The day before, I had stayed home dealing with two sick kids and had asked my husband to come home from work 30 minutes early,” Faria says. “When he said he couldn’t come home early, we ended up arguing in front of the kids. Since we rarely argue, our daughter was scared and led others at her school to believe that I was a battered wife and that our children were being abused.”

While Faria adds that her 5-year-old daughter’s interpretation of the argument could not be further from the truth, she says the phone call was “a real eye-opener for us because we had no idea that we had upset Lauren in this way.”

This situation points to questions many parents ask themselves: When, if ever, is it OK to fight in front of the kids? And, what kind of impact do these arguments, big or small, have on children?

A Child’s View

Dr. John Gottman, a University of Washington professor emeritus of psychology who is world renowned for his research on marriage and parenting, recommends strict guidelines when it comes to arguing in front of kids. The author of 40 books writes in his newest book, And Baby Makes Three, that babies should never witness parents’ fights because infants sense conflict, which causes the infants’ blood pressure to rise.

Dr. Arminta Jacobson, a University of North Texas professor of family studies, development and early childhood education, says she couldn’t agree more. “Infants can even pick up on negative facial expressions,” she adds. Jacobson, who’s the founder and director of the Center for Parent Education in North Texas, says that young children can experience strong feelings of negativity due to an argument, particularly if there is anger directed toward a parent to whom they are very attached.

Kids ages 4-8 should witness only minor disagreements, Gottman writes, however, it’s important to “make sure to resolve it in front of them … using words to explain to the children that you’ve worked out the problem.” Arguments viewed by preschool-age children may trigger the child to “think that they caused the conflict because from their standpoint they are the center of the world,” Jacobson explains.

With kids ages 8 and older, more serious arguments may cause children to immediately jump to conclusions and assume that you and your spouse are going to break up, Jacobson says. Frisco mom Alicia Knieriemen says her children’s reactions to her disagreements with her husband are very different. “If our 13-year-old hears us disagree on anything, he says, ‘Are you going to get a divorce?’ while our 5-year-old feels as though she has to be near one of us and come and sit on one of our laps,” she says.

Many parents argue that it’s inevitable for moms and dads to disagree. “Parents are naturally going to argue in front of their kids. It’s not healthy if they don’t disagree,” says Jacobson.

According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the issue isn’t whether parents fight, it’s how they fight in front of the kids. The report states that children who witness constructive parental disputes (during which parents actively solve problems together and continue to show each other affection throughout the discussion) tend to be more emotionally secure and socially adjusted. Adversely, the study reflects that children whose parents argue with aggression tend to be passive-aggressive and less socially secure.

Positive Problems

So how can parents fight in a constructive manner? “If one of the parents can step back and use reflective language, children will then see that mom or dad is listening to the other side of the argument instead of just reacting,” says Jacobson. “Parents can use phrases like ‘I can see that this is very important to you.’ This disarms the anger and shows that the person isn’t interested in struggling for power in the argument. Then say, ‘What can we do to compromise?’ It’s essential to exhibit problem-solving skills.”

And, if you and your partner slip up and show anger toward each other in front of the kids, take it upon yourself to diffuse the situation before misinterpretations can be made. Faria says that she decided to sit down with her daughter immediately after school to discuss the previous night’s argument between mom and dad. “I explained to her that mommy and daddy love each other, but we sometimes disagree on things just like how she and her friends at school can disagree. I told her that we are going to discuss our disagreements without getting angry, and that she would hold us to it. I asked her to tell us ‘You are arguing’ just in case we forget — that way she feels like she’s helping us find a solution.”

Jacobson adds, “Research always shows that the relationship between parents is indicative of successful parenting. There’s no stigma when it comes to parents seeking out therapy or solutions. If they learn to manage their own anger and conflicts, so will the children.”