With more stress during the pandemic, it's normal for couples to have a few more arguments than usual. But does it harm your children when they witness a dispute? Experts say it's not that you're arguing that matters, it's how.

By Miriam Foley
February 26, 2021
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"We are all on edge," says Beth Proudfoot, LMFT, a child specialist and parenting coach in San Jose, California, who has more than 35 years of experience counseling children and families. She's referring to the fact that parents across the globe have been arguing more. Not only that, divorce rates went up 34 percent last year.

And it's not just the pandemic causing stress either; it's political division, climate change, and the economy to name a few. "When our emotional systems are already 'up to here,' it doesn't take much to put us over the top," says Proudfoot. "Habits, quirks, little things that before COVID-19 were just mildly irritating can be the last straw that takes us into lashing out."

An image of a couple upset at each other.
Credit: Getty Images.

Social isolation only adds to the problem since there are fewer outlets available to reduce stress and partners become "the only ones there to take it all out on." The result of that is, well, more arguing. A University of Michigan study in May 2020 says married couples are indeed fighting more about finances and other household issues during the pandemic because of economic hardship.

But what happens when kids witness the arguing? Is it OK to fight in front of them?

Truth is, says Proudfoot, it's hard not to. "One of the deep problems that has emerged during this pandemic is the lack of privacy for couples," she says. "The kids are always there."

That's not always a bad thing. She points out there are things couples argue about that are unsolvable—aka things you probably need to accept about the other person—like in-laws and political views. But for that portion of problems for which there is a solution, coming to it in front of your children can be a wonderful lesson in how grown-ups solve problems together.

"Arguing is a form of communication. Disagreement and the need for resolution is natural and part of family life," says Penny Mansfield, a relationships expert and director of the U.K.'s leading relationship research and innovation charity, One Plus One.

The mistake that lots of parents make, points out Mansfield, is beginning an argument in front of the children, but not ending it in front of them, thinking it better to "leave it there" or take it to another room. The reality is kids benefit from seeing a resolution, she adds, especially since they may continue to worry about the issue otherwise. The key, though, is knowing how to argue in front of your kids.

How to Argue Better

Learn to embrace disagreements as part of family life and focus on keeping them healthy. The latter is a key point, as research shows that frequent, heated, and hostile parental conflict can impact a child's mental health and lead to relationship issues, behavioral problems, and increased aggression.

Here are a few ways experts recommend settling arguments, especially when kids are present.

Focus on your breathing. "Keep calm," says Mansfield. "Work on your breathing." This will help you not to lose your temper and get hyper, allowing you to be more in control of your emotions.

Listen to your partner. You might feel your partner is fully to blame, but you won't get a solution that way. Experts say it's important to give your partner the opportunity to share their thoughts in a nonjudgmental environment before responding.

Keep on track. Don't start talking about one issue and end up focusing on another, advises Mansfield. Stay focused on the issue at hand.

Choose the right words. Use phrases like "I think" and "I feel." Experts say this will help your partner understand where you're coming from. It's also less threatening, shows vulnerability, and allows for engagement rather than making the other person feel attacked.

Opt for the right moment. Maybe you wanted to talk about something but your partner just finished a work call. You may have to say, "I wanted to talk about something, but now's not the time." Find a moment when you're both able to speak about the issue with a clear head.

Don't use destructive methods. Those include verbal and physical aggression, silent treatment, or intense quarrels that can prove upsetting and even harmful for children.

Think about the kids. There are times when your child may want to get involved, even playing umpire, telling one parent off for being mad at the other, or asking both to stop. In situations like those, it's important that you try and stop immediately.

"Go to your corners with an appointment to talk about the issue later, when you both have had time to calm down and think about solutions," says Proudfoot. "Apologize to the kids and remind them that it's not their job to be involved in their parents' disagreements and that the two of you will figure out the answer when you're calm." Remind them of the love you have for each other and them and that nobody comes up with a good solution when angry. Also, give your kids the opportunity to express to you how the argument made them feel.

The Bottom Line

Disagreements between parents will happen no matter what—especially during the pandemic—and kids are bound to witness an argument or two. But parents can argue in a healthy way by demonstrating that different feelings can be expressed and problems can be solved without slamming doors or being nasty to each other. Kids may walk away learning how to better solve problems with others too.