Psychologically Speaking: Fighting in front of the kids

One thing we know for sure is that children are far more aware of fighting than parents think.

Dear Dr. Batya, As hard as we try not to, it seems inevitable that we end up fighting in front of our kids. They get upset and at times even try and intervene. Do you think our quarrelling has negative consequences for the kids or do they see us as just having different opinions and an open yet heated discussion? - L.L. Children have the potential to learn a tremendous amount by watching how two adults disagree and handle conflict, an inevitability in even every good marriage. How well they will do and whether they will be adversely impacted depends in part on how you resolve your arguments, the tone these arguments take, how well you get along when you are not fighting and your child's age and stage of development. It will also depend on what the issues are, how often you fight and even when you fight. The fact that you wonder if the children will be affected might suggest that something about the way the two of you disagree has you concerned. Ask yourself how your child acts during and after a fight. For example, does he take on the role of mediator and try and persuade you to resolve things? Does he raise his voice, run away, appear anxious or upset or not talk to or listen to one of you afterward? Does he imitate you? Is he overly dependent on his siblings in a way that suggests a lack of trust in his parents? One thing we know for sure is that children are far more aware of fighting than parents think, so be aware of what information they get from an argument. They don't miss a thing! It is natural and normal for couples to fight as no two people agree on everything. It can even be a healthy and constructive way to resolve tension if done appropriately. Children can learn much as observers and need not feel threatened or insecure, assuming they see that you respect and love each other, you quarrel, resolve your issues and then become warm and affectionate once again to each other. Fighting in itself doesn't destroy either a marriage or the children's psyches. It is how you fight that determines how your child will ultimately do. What gets said and how is it said? Are you calm, considerate, open, honest and mature or do you interrupt, bring up issues that are not relevant to the argument or verbally abuse each other? Do you include your children in your fight, forcing them to take sides or blaming them for your issues? While you can, and maybe even should, fight in front of your children, your goal is to work through and resolve issues by being both a good role model and teaching healthy conflict resolution skills. If you argue frequently, but never seem to resolve an issue, children will see that discussion does little to solve problems. When children experience constant conflict and either don't see issues being resolved or don't see the fight end with parents making up, the take-away message is that fighting is bad. They may see you as competitive, mean, scary and indecisive, and they themselves may feel insecure, stressed or assume their behavior is the cause of your conflict. As it is, children may draw the wrong conclusions and sometimes completely misunderstand what you're arguing about, or assume by your tone that you're arguing when in fact you aren't. Children need lots of reassurance that all is okay. While many issues can, and should, be brought up in front of the kids, you should always be aware of the impact they might have. You know your own child and his needs best. Many disagreements or differences of parenting styles, for example, can be easily addressed in front of the children and input from the children even discussed. However, if two parents disagree such that one parent is more permissive than the other and brings this up in front of the child, the child will soon learn to manipulate his parents and ask the more lenient one for what he wants. Private or confidential issues around intimacy, sex, work, money or other people should also not be aired in front of your children. If you think that fighting can never take place in front of your child, be aware that by protecting your child from anger or conflict, you may inadvertently deprive him of an opportunity to perfect interpersonal skills that he'll need later in life. I have seen many an adult in my office who, having been shielded from all parental conflict as a child, has difficulty in his current relationships because he avoids conflict at all costs. Wouldn't it have been better for him to have learned that parents who love each other can acknowledge their differences and frustrations yet be tolerant, accepting and ultimately forgiving, and move on? In an atmosphere of love within the family, there will be room for disagreements and differences of opinion because people can tolerate this and express themselves constructively and in a healthy way. Stay tuned until next time when I'll address just how to argue and how to resolve quarrels and provide some rules for fighting fairly. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. ludman@netvision.net.il