Work, bills, general exhaustion — there are a number of things that can cause couples to fight. And when you add kids to the mix, the stakes — and stress — are even higher. No parent wants to argue in front of their child, but thanks to the added pressure and costs (and a whole lot less sleep!) that come with parenthood, it happens. But here’s a little secret: Not all fights that occur in front of the kids are detrimental. In fact, there are valuable lessons that come from witnessing a constructive, productive argument that results in resolution.
“It’s important for children to be exposed to loving people who disagree since it’s an inevitable part of any relationship,” says Dana Dorfman, psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast “2 Moms on the Couch.”
Dorfman notes that when children never see their parents fighting, they can develop unrealistic expectations about adult relationships and may become anxious when they experience disagreements of their own in the future.
Tired of losing your cool in front of your little ones? Cut back on arguing in front of the kids — and learn to fight better — with these expert tips.
1. Schedule arguments
While you can’t predict when a fight is going to erupt (and the heated emotions that accompany it), having a general agreement that you’ll have it out when the kids aren’t around can protect them from avoidable turmoil.
“When an argument is in the making, it’s OK to express your concerns, but suggest addressing the issue after the children are asleep or when they’re not home,” says Dorfman. “When you do this, you’re not being dismissive or denying the need for ongoing processing, but instead suggesting a healthier, less destructive opportunity to discuss things.”
2. Own your feelings
Every situation is up for interpretation, so avoid the urge to make your narrative the narrative.
“It’s important to identify your individual feelings by using ‘I’ statements during arguments,” says Dorfman.
For example, you can say, “I feel resentful when you forget to take out the trash,” or “I felt slighted when you didn’t ask me how my important meeting went.”
Not only does this prevent finger-pointing in arguments, but it offers a benefit for your little ones if they happen to overhear the discussion.
“When parents do this in front of their kids during tense moments, they’re teaching their children effective communication skills during disagreements,” Dorfman says. “You’re demonstrating how to take ownership for your contributions or feelings within the dynamic. That’s an invaluable life skill!”
3. Improve communication on the front end
One of the best ways to nip a fight in the bud from the get-go? Avoid having one in the first place. First Things First, a nonprofit focused on providing relationship skills and advice to couples, suggests the following for improving overall communication within relationships:
- Be specific. When airing a grievance to your partner, don’t generalize. For example, don’t start a statement with “You always…” or “You never…” Sticking to the specific issue should defuse blow-out arguments before they start.
- Spend (quality) time together. When kids enter the picture, one-on-one time with your partner diminishes. Make sure you spend some time, even 20 to 30 minutes, catching up with each other each day — without your phones.
- Listen openly. A key component of a healthy relationship is making an effort to hear where your partner is coming from — even if it’s a complaint or criticism. While you may not see eye-to-eye with your partner, it’s important to let them know you’re taking in what they say. “You don’t have to agree with them, but it’s always important to validate your spouse’s feelings,” says Dorfman.
- Be generous with compliments and positive feelings. Dole out compliments like you do criticisms: openly. The goal in any relationship is to have the compliments outweigh the complaints.
4. Recognize when you’re assuming someone’s intentions
“It’s important to be able to realize that someone else’s intentions are likely different from your perception and feelings,” says Dorfman. “The ability to do this can be a particularly helpful skill when explaining conflict to children since it’s an opportunity for them to learn something after witnessing it first-hand.”
Once the dust settles, you can explain the situation to them from different angles, Dorfman says.
One example she gives: “Dad didn’t mean to hurt my feelings when he forgot to pick me up at the train station. I was frustrated and disappointed because I just wanted to get home after a long day of work.”
5. Make sure the kids see you make up
If they’re going to see the bad, make sure they also see the good.
“If your kids witnessed a fight, make sure they witness the makeup as well,” says Dr. Stephen Snyder, a sex and relationship therapist and author of “Love Worth Making — How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship.”
Snyder notes that it’s important for children to see their parents restoring good feelings together and to share in those feelings.
“That way, they’ll learn that when people lose their cool, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world,” says Snyder. “They’ll see that things that feel broken can be healed and repaired.”
6. Acknowledge your child’s feelings
“When the fight is over, acknowledge how awful it must have felt for your child,” says Snyder. “You can even tell them how much you hated it when your parents fought, which might help them understand that it’s a normal part of life, since you experienced it, too.”
By tuning into your child’s emotions and letting them know you see and understand them, you’re helping them feel safe, as well as connected to you.
7. Assure your child it’s not their fault
While it may be clear as day to you that your child was an innocent bystander, that may not be how they see things when you and your partner fight.
“Kids are innately and developmentally egocentric,” says Dorfman. “They believe that their thoughts and actions can impact others, particularly their parents. As a result, when parents fight, children may blame themselves. It’s crucial to assure your child that no matter what tension exists between mom and dad, both still love the child and that he or she isn’t to blame.”
The effects of fighting in front of kids
While some level of fighting is inevitable in every partnership, excessive, destructive arguing in the house can cause children to develop problematic patterns in adulthood. Here are just a few effects that troublesome and toxic fighting can have on kids’ mental health that every parent needs to aware of:
- Learned behavior. Kids learn about adult relationships from their parents and often mimic their behavior. “Kids often emulate the conflict styles they learned from their parents,” says Dorfman.
- Repetition compulsion. “When kids are exposed to excessive fighting or abusive relationships, they may unconsciously recreate the dynamics in adulthood” and gravitate to similarly unhealthy relationships, says Dorfman. “People often replicate unresolved issues from childhood when they’re adults.”
- Avoidance of intimate relationships. Dorfman also notes that if parents’ fighting caused consistent fear and anxiety in a child (and the feelings are never dealt with), they may avoid close relationships altogether in adulthood.
- An ongoing struggle with anxiety into adulthood. “If kids don’t deal with being exposed to anger and disagreements — which are a natural part of relationships — in a healthy way, they can become anxious about feeling anger and disagreements in adulthood,” says Dorfman.
When to seek professional help
If you feel that the arguments with your partner are getting out of control and affecting your child’s mental well-being, consider consulting a professional. A trained therapist can provide one-on-one or couple’s therapy as needed and teach you and your partner new tools to manage your relationship in a healthier way.