How you handle squabbles and manage disagreements has a direct effect on kids’ behavior.
Some families believe they should never fight “in front of the kids.” Others could care less, letting loose with stinging invectives whenever a disagreement erupts. It turns out that neither style of conflict resolution is very good for children’s emotional development.
“Conflict and anger are not bad,” says Patrick T. Davies, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, and co-author with E. Mark Cummings, of Martial Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective. “It’s OK to be angry, as long as it’s managed in a constructive way and the parents are making some progress toward resolution. In those cases, there’s value to anger, and there’s meaning in it. It’s good when kids see parents manage that and work together as a team to increase or maintain family harmony.”
But when families fight in an unpredictable way—when conflict arises out of seemingly innocent mistakes or small disagreements—kids suffer. Name-calling, door slamming, stony silence, one-upmanship, or aggressive physical actions threaten kids security, can have lasting and serious effects, and can color the whole family’s dynamic.
When parents fight that way, says Davies, kids spend so much time watching and worrying about their family members that their development may be affected. They can’t focus on the business of childhood: playing, learning, and exploring. In fact, those who grow up with constant fighting may develop lasting symptoms that include:
- Sleeplessness (and tiredness during the day)
- A habit of playing loudly to drown out the noise of yelling and screaming
- Stomach aches
- Uptick in anxious behaviors: nail-biting, finger sucking, hair pulling and twirling
These same kids also spend less time with their parents because battling spouses don’t have the energy left to take care of their kids. And they often aren’t very nice to their children. “There’s something called anger spillover,” Davies explains. “When the parents fight, there’s a tendency for residual anger, stress, and preoccupation to spill over into their relationship with their kids. For many kids, conflict is a reliable precursor to their parents being in bad moods.”
Be sure that you are not exposing kids to toxic fighting by sticking to these guidelines:
Limit expressions of intense anger: “It may be difficult not to yell at times, but try to keep yelling to a minimum so it is rarely expressed in your conflicts,” Davies says. And when you have to yell, make an effort to make up with your partner, that way your kids will see harmony or affection in the face of disagreement.
Fight fair: Look at each other and, if possible, sit down, since standing fights seem more aggressive and threatening to children. Avoid the silent treatment, slamming doors, or walking out on your partner, since those actions are seen, especially by children, as signs of anger or disrespect, Davies says. Avoid name-calling and vicious language.
Stay in the moment: Don’t bring into each fight perceived wrongs from disagreements past.
Don’t try to be right: Try to reach a compromise or a solution. Doing that is much better than arguing about who is “right.” “Try to generate possible solutions that will work for both of you rather than going into the conflict with the mentality that you have to win the argument,” advises Davies. Demonstrate that you understand your partner’s perspective. You can nod your head, say, “I see,” or offer other non-verbal cues. If possible, repeat back to your partner your understanding of his or her viewpoint.
Avoid the Silent Treatment: “Kids pick up on nonverbal anger—even pre-schoolers do. And in some cases, that’s more distressing that mild verbal anger,” says Davies. “Kids can’t process it. They don’t know what is going on, but they know something is not right…it sets off a smoke alarm in their heads—they know something is wrong, and it becomes a bigger deal to them than maybe it really is.”
Sometimes agree to disagree: Sometimes there really is no resolution, but being able to acknowledge differences and move on sets a good example for kids, according to Davies. Instead of seeking to be right, seek to be heard in an argument, and let the other person know that you have also heard what he or she has said.
Talk to your grandchild: Sometimes big shouting matches do occur. Once they’ve passed, you can casually reassure your grandchild that the disagreement is over and all is back to normal. Warning: Don’t make that assurance if it’s not true.
“That’s critical,” Davies says. “You can say everything’s OK now as long as you’re not holding a grudge. If it’s not going back to normal the kids will see that and be confused by what you say.”
Kids who grow up around fighting tend to learn destructive tactics when it comes to resolving conflict in their own lives, Davies says. So before you explode at your spouse, realize that he or she is not the only one hearing it.