Fighting in front of your children can definitely threaten their emotional stability. It’s not dependent on the frequency of the fighting. One really bad fight where the child feels someone can get hurt can have more of an impact than 5 little fights. It all depends on how the parent’s handle the situation.
IS THERE A RIGHT WAY TO “FIGHT” IN FRONT OF YOUR CHILDREN?
• No cursing, yelling or name-calling. Don’t threaten each other. Try to keep the tone at least cordial and avoid raising your voices. Kids will often be more scared by the tone and volume than the content.
• Avoid scary or inappropriate topics in front of the kids (e.g., sex, cheating, drug/alcohol use, negatives about the other’s appearance, talking badly about the child or people the child knows). • Don’t put your child in a position where they feel they need to take sides, or worse, feel that they have to run interference or stop the fight. Don’t try to get your child on your side by saying something against the other (e.g., See, your mean daddy made me cry). This can be very frightening and confusing for a child.
WHAT SHOULD PARENTS DO IF THEY’VE HAD A FIGHT THAT HAS ESCALATED?
If you’ve had a fight that escalated, acknowledge that what you did or said was inappropriate. Let them observe you and your partner engaged in appropriate reparation, apologizing in a genuine matter, and if possible, hugging and making up. Process it with your child if they are old enough to engage in discussion. “How did you feel when mom and dad were arguing?” “What part made you scared?” “What were you afraid would happen?” Many kids will say, “I was afraid you were going to get a divorce,” which is something parents should address directly. HOW DO PARENTS KNOW IF THEIR CHILDREN HAVE BEEN AFFECTED BY THEIR FIGHTING?
Signs that your fighting is affecting your kids can be seen in their behavior. They may present as depressed, withdrawn, quiet, tearful, overly emotional, and anxious. They may start having separation anxiety from one or both parents. They may also exhibit disruptive behaviors in the form of aggression, acting out, oppositional/defiant behaviors.
IS IT EVER A GOOD IDEA FOR PARENTS TO STAY TOGETHER JUST FOR THE SAKE OF THE KIDS?
If you are finding that you are fighting too often in front of the kids, consider getting some couples counseling to find more constructive ways of problem solving, and perhaps some counseling for the kids if you feel they are showing signs of anxiety or negative reaction to your fighting. I cringe when parents say they are staying together because they want to have an intact parental unit. It’s better to have two happy parents than two that live together and are fighting all the time. Staying together makes it much worse for the children.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO TRY AND AVOID FIGHTING IN FRONT OF THEIR KIDS? They should consider leaving the situation for a few minutes before it escalates. Tell your partner you’re going to get the mail, or take a shower, or fold some clothes and take a few minutes. Take some deep breaths, think about ways to problem solve with your partner without being explosive, and return when you can maintain composure and engage in effective discussion. This is probably a good idea whether you have kids or not. Also, if you disagree about how something is being handled, discuss it once alone, after the fact, or give the parent a subtle, nonverbal cue that you’d like to discuss something privately.
Get more parenting advice from Dr. Stephanie Marcy at www.chla.org.