Common wisdom holds that it is not good for children to see their parents fighting. Witnessing marital conflict sets a bad example for young minds and reduces a child’s respect for his parents. Yet psychologists are divided about this subject. While all agree that witnessing abuse is damaging for any child, what about the occasional argument? Is it ever okay to have a disagreement in front of the kids?
Proponents of exposing kids to parents fighting argue that conflict is a part of life and hiding it from children does them a disservice. Children not exposed to conflict may grow up with an unrealistic view of human relationships and unprepared for the chaos of social life. Letting kids watch a marital spat shows them that it is possible to have disagreements and still love the people close to you. Witnessing arguments is also an opportunity to model healthy conflict resolution habits
Professor Mark Cummings of Notre Dame University and his team have conducted several studies on children’s reactions to parents fighting. One study followed 235 families over the course of 7 years. At the beginning of the study researchers asked parents and their young children about conflict in the home and recorded indicators of emotional health. They then asked parents to discuss a touchy topic while recording how aggressively the couples argued. They followed up with surveys of the children and parents seven years later when the children were adolescents. Predictably, children from high conflict homes were less emotionally secure and more likely to act out than their peers.
However, it was not the frequency of conflict but it’s quality that most affected the children. Children whose parents were the most vicious arguers, using personal insults and vindictive attacks, suffered the most. Children whose parents had conflict but were able to resolve the issues lovingly seemed to suffer no negative consequences.
“Problems occur every day. But if parents problem-solve and try to work it out, if they come up with a resolution or work toward it, show positive emotion when they are in the middle of fighting, [and] say nice things to each other or are affectionate, kids see all these things as very positive,” said Professor Cummings.
In another study researchers set up a home-like environment with cameras and hired actors to mimic a parents fighting. The study then brought in 500 5 to 18-year 0lds to watch the drama. Over the course of 20 years these children came to the lab while researchers monitored their reactions to the scene as well as levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. The study again concluded that when conflict included positive resolution, the children learned from the experience. However, children who were only showed the first part of the argument without resolution exhibited signs of emotional distress.
So, proponents of arguing in front of the kids do have a point. Modeling healthy conflict resolution does benefit your child. Disagreement isn’t inherently stressful to children. Yet inherent in this research, and proponents own arguments, is a cautionary note.
Disagreement and fighting are very different behaviors. Disagreement is inevitable in life. Fighting is not. With the exception of some individuals with emotional or intellectual disabilities, hostile behavior towards others is a learned and voluntary behavior. Individuals engage in aggression because they are taught that is an acceptable reaction to dislike and a way to make others conform to their desires. This behavior is learned directly from the family environment and indirectly through society as a whole that approves of and perpetuates violence.
Fighting is not natural, and neither is it beneficial. It is a myth that releasing pent-up emotion with angry behavior is healthy. So while fights may come to a happy resolution, this is not enough. Any type of arguing or fighting is toxic to your marriage and family. Anger, blame, and insults contribute to a negative cloud in your home, increase tension, and harm your health even if the conflict is resolved lovingly and everyone apologizes.
Seeing parents fighting is never good for children. The benefits of witnessing a disagreement only hold true when the disagreement is calm and a healthy conclusion can be reached. Yet, how many of your arguments are resolved ideally, with no raised voices and attacks? Even the best laid plans for a debate get abandoned once emotions take over.
Your goal for your marriage should be to reduce anger to as close to zero as possible. For even naturally quick-tempered individuals this is possible through habit-changing practice. Power of Two is filled with activities to help you learn the skills for resolving conflict without getting heated – check out their online marriage counseling program. Only once you can dependably handle a conflict without anger will it be appropriate to let your child see a disagreement. Only then can he or she reap the benefits of healthy conflict resolution.
A few more guidelines for conflict in marriage…
Don’t try to hide ongoing conflict.
Do know children are very perceptive. Even babies will begin to cry and fuss when they hear raised voices. The older children get, the more attuned they become to the emotional climate in your home. In this way, keeping simmering stress and resentment under the surface to avoid making a scene isn’t fooling or helping anyone. Children who pick up on something being wrong will likely be confused and tense. Acknowledging that mom and dad are having problems, love each other very much and are working it out is a better option.
Tell your children what they will understand.
At the same time, it is important not to unload adult problems onto children that they will neither understand nor be able to do anything about. Inform your child of the problem in terms that he or she can understand. Avoid detail or adult concepts. Do not reverse the parent-child hierarchy by forcing your child to be your emotional support.
Reassure that the conflict has nothing to do with the child.
Children, still figuring out their influence as autonomous beings in the world, tend to take things very personally. They may misconstrue conflict as being their fault. This is especially true if you don’t tell them what is going on. When children sense tension they often assume it must be because of them. Constantly reassure your child that this is between mom and dad.
Say it: people who love each other still disagree
Constantly reassure your child that even when people are mad at each other they still love each other very much. Not internalizing this message can lead to difficulty with criticism and conflict as individuals may construe criticism as a rejection of their whole person. Conflict is feared as a loss of love. Rather, reinforce the message that it is healthy to have differences and to respect other’s differences. People don’t need to see eye-to-eye to still care for and respect each other.