Question: My husband and I had an argument in front of our 3-year-old. On the scale, it didn’t seem that heated, but we were both very annoyed and upset. But there was never any swearing, name-calling or aggression. Months later, our son is still talking about it, saying, “Remember when you and Dad argued? I don’t like you to fight. Don’t fight.”
In an ideal world, parents would never fight, but in reality it happens. So how can we do it in a way that is healthy and emotionally safe for our kids?
I would like our son to see us struggle and then make up to know that we can work through things. Is this too much to ask? Are we traumatizing him?
Answer: The framing of this question is important. Is it OK to fight in front of your child? No, never. Is it OK to resolve a disagreement? Yes, absolutely.
Fighting, as opposed to disagreeing respectfully, indicates hostility, which in most cases is unproductive for resolving a disagreement and is stressful for kids to observe. Regardless of whether your argument included swearing or name-calling, kids pick up on nonverbal cues such as body language and tone of voice. They can tell when their parents are fighting.
It’s important for people of all ages to feel safe, especially for children who depend on Mommy and Daddy for their security. In cases of extreme domestic abuse, children experience physical stress, which can lead to high levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol) being released. At high levels, these hormones can damage developing brains. Avoid fighting in front of your child. The damaging effects, both physical and emotional, can take a long-lasting toll.
How do you walk the fine line between disagreeing and fighting with your partner in the heat of the moment?
If you sense that you or your partner is losing composure, decrease the heat. It’s OK to say, “I’m feeling very annoyed right now. I need to take a break.” Or, “Daddy’s upset, so Daddy’s going to take a timeout.” Don’t feel like you have to fake agreement or hide your emotions. This won’t prepare your child for learning to communicate appropriately or for navigating his disagreements in the real world. You want to send a message that all people have a right to their feelings, to communicate those feelings and to negotiate their needs, but it’s important to get yourself back to neutral before you can peacefully work toward a resolution. It’s best to avoid prolonged communication when one or both partners are emotionally disregulated.
When you resolve a disagreement with your partner when your child is present, try to model behavior for discussion and compromise that will lay the foundation for your son’s communication skills. Take these steps:
- Manage your emotions. Alleviate stress by practicing self-care (e.g., take deep breaths, take a break, exercise, use your support network, etc.). If your child is present, you may want to explain that Mommy is upset and going for a run to calm down. However, it’s not necessary to give play-by-play instructions. You’re already modeling a strong example for your child by remaining respectful and removing yourself from the conversation when it becomes heated. Seeing this example teaches your son to use healthy coping strategies and good communication skills for disagreements in the future.
- Return to the conversation when you feel emotionally regulated. If your child is present, you can explain that Mommy and Daddy are feeling calmer and ready to start resolving their disagreement. Kids don’t have to be privy to all aspects of adult life, though. Feel free to resolve the disagreement on your own, without bringing your child back into the conversation.
- When you resume the conversation, practice good communication skills:
- Listen: It is important to listen actively. Practice eye contact and open body language. Take turns talking so only one person speaks at a time.
- Repeat: Repeating is an active listening skill that demonstrates you understand the other person’s point of view. Summarize what your partner has said to show that you care about what he or she says.
- Validate: You don’t have to agree with your partner’s ideas, but it’s important to validate his or her feelings and experiences. Show empathy, and be sensitive to your partner’s point of view.
Parents are the most significant role models that a child has. Disagreements with your partner are an opportunity to model healthy behavior for communication and conflict resolution. Not only will your disagreements be less intense, but you’ll also empower your child with good communication skills that he can use for the rest of his life.
Have a parenting question? PAMP has relationships with professionals who are experts in everything from meltdowns to money. Use the Ask the Expert form, and look for the answer in future newsletters.
Karlie Guthrie, MA is a marriage and family therapist at Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto. She has more than 10 years of experience helping children and teens with emotional and behavioral challenges. Karlie uses the principles of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to guide her work. She specializes in building relationships between kids and parents and helping families improve their communication habits.