Dr. Laura….In your last post, you said that when parents fight in front of their children, it makes the children anxious. But I read that fighting is fine as long as you “make up” afterward and the kids see that.”
You’re right! Research by Mark Cummings (which was publicized in Po Bronson’s book Nurture Shock) showed that as long as parents “made up” with each other after a staged disagreement, the children easily recovered from the incident.
BUT as Cummings the researcher stressed, the parents were disagreeing, not yelling in these scripted encounters, so there were no raised voices, insults, or disrespect.
By contrast, when parents’ fights include yelling or disrespect, it does make children anxious, and in fact previous studies by Cummings have established that such fights, especially when repeated, are damaging to kids.
In this more hopeful research, Cummings wanted to find out whether “plain old everyday conflict” — just ordinary non-yelling disagreement — was also a problem. So he scripted encounters in which the parents had a difference of opinion but did not yell at each other. As it turned out, even these disagreements were very upsetting to the children who witnessed them. So yes, even non-yelling disagreements where parents are in conflict are hard on kids.
Happily, though — and this is the hopeful part — when the children also saw the adults “resolving” the argument with affection, the kids were fine afterwards. In fact, I think it teaches children important lessons, to see parents disagree and make a repair.
So the takeaway is that any time you have any disagreement with your partner in front of your child — even without yelling — it’s essential that you affectionately and explicitly “repair” the relationship.
The following scenarios of parents “fighting” are actually terrific modeling for your child.
1. One parent snaps at the other, then immediately course corrects.
“I’m so sorry – I’m just feeling stressed – can we try that over? What I meant to say was…” Kids learn from this modeling that anyone can get angry, but that we can take responsibility for our own emotions, apologize, and re-connect. You’ll see your child start to apologize and course correct, too.
2. Parents work through a difference of opinion without getting triggered and raising their voices.
For instance, if you and your partner have a good-natured discussion about who should clean the toilet or whether to buy a new car, your child learns that humans who live together can have different needs and opinions, listen to each other, and work toward a win/win decision – all respectfully and with affection.
3. Parents notice that they have a conflict brewing and agree to discuss it later.
Hopefully, this happens before there’s any yelling — or you’ll be modeling yelling. And hopefully, you can close the interaction with a big, public, hug. If you’re too mad, first take some space to calm down and then prioritize the hug in front of your child, with a family mantra like “It’s okay to get mad…. You can be mad at someone and still love them at the same time .… We always work things out.” This takes maturity, but it models self-regulation and repair. And it’s crucial to restoring your child’s sense of safety.
All couples have disagreements, but adult fierceness is always scary to kids. Children will recover if we handle our disagreements with respect and good will, looking for solutions instead of blame. If we yell or express disrespect, it’s an emotional risk factor for children, and simply “making up” in front of the child does not ameliorate the negative effects.
And of course, respect and refraining from yelling is best for our partnerships, too. Anger is a message to us about what we need. There’s always a way to ask for what we need without attacking the other person. It’s never appropriate to dump anger on another person, in front of your kids or not.
Not so easy to do? You’re right. Most of us never learned how to manage our own emotions, express our needs without attacking, and handle conflict in a healthy way.
But every couple can learn healthy conflict resolution. And you can repair things with your children if you’ve been fighting in front of them.
Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
Image courtesy of Ketut Subiyanto.