You probably know that fighting with your partner in front of your kids isn't ideal. Studies around home conflict have shown that kids who experience their parents arguing process emotions differently than other children, which could have long-term effects on their social development and behavior. Plus, frequent, unresolved fighting at home can chip away at kids' confidence and trigger sadness, anxiety, and fear. But let's be honest: At one time or another, most of us have found ourselves arguing with our partner in front of little ears.
Here's some good news: That's totally fine—as long as you handle disagreements in a constructive way, says University of Arizona researcher Olena Kopystynska.
In a new paper set to be published in the Journal of Family Psychology, Kopystynska details the results of a study that looked at the way parents handle conflict with each other and how that affects the emotional security their children feel.
Using national data collected for the Building Strong Families Project, which targeted low-income families—which could be at high risk of home conflict due to financial stress—the study looked at the difference between constructive (calm, respectful, focused) and destructive (hostile, resentful, unfocused) styles of conflict management.
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The study focused on families with 3-year-old children and asked both mothers and fathers to report how they handled conflicts and how their children reacted when they saw their parents fighting.
Kopystynska and her team found that when even one parent handles conflict with a partner destructively, it can leave children feeling more emotionally insecure about their home life.
"Children are very good at picking up on little nuances of how parents interact with each other, so it really matters how parents express and manage their daily life challenges because that determines children's confidence in the stability and safety of their family," Kopystynska said.
The takeaway? Disagreements are a part of any relationship. Rather than avoiding conflict altogether, parents should be aware of how they are interacting with one another and handle arguments in a way that makes their children feel less threatened.
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And given that children are going to have disagreements of their own, exposure to some conflict can actually be beneficial, since it teaches them how to handle it constructively. "Not all conflict is bad," Kopystynska said. "It's about how you manage it."