Is It OK to Argue in Front of Your Kids?

Does it harm your children when they witness a dispute? Experts say it's not the arguing that matters, it's how you argue.

Parental conflict can result from interpersonal differences and external stressors, like a pandemic , 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 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.

When these external stressors combine with all of the little things that were previously mildly irritating, it can be the last straw that causes you to lash out. The result of that can be more arguing. A University of Michigan study in May 2020 says married couples are indeed fighting more about finances and other household issues since the COVID-19 pandemic because of economic hardship.

Read on to learn how witnessing parental conflict impacts kids, and how to handle disagreements better.

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

How Arguing Impacts Kids

Truth is, says Proudfoot, it's hard not to argue in front of kids. This was especially true during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when families were isolated at home for months on end. "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."

The benefits

That's not always a bad thing. Proudfoot points out there are things couples argue about that are unsolvable, 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 harms

On the other hand, when not handled carefully and intentionally, conflict in front of kids can have consequences. For example, a 2013 study from researchers at the University of Oregon looked at how parental arguments impacted babies' brain functioning. Researchers found that even during sleep, babies reacted to an emotional tone of voice, and that infants in high-conflict homes had greater reactivity to angry tones in brain areas linked to stress and emotion regulation.

In addition, another study from researchers at the University of Vermont evaluated the effect of arguing on kids' brains. They found that kids whose parents fight frequently process emotion differently and may face more social challenges later in life than kids from low-conflict homes.

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

Learning to embrace disagreements is part of family life, but the key is to keep the disagreements healthy. That's because a body of research, including a 2017 study in the European Journal of Pediatrics, shows that repeated, heated, and hostile parental conflict can impact a child's mental health and lead to behavioral problems.

The good news is there are healthy ways to settle 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, 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. It's important to give your partner the opportunity to share their thoughts in a nonjudgmental environment before responding.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents should find ways to cooperate rather than compete with one another. Active listening doesn't mean you have to agree, but it does demonstrate flexibility.

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." These are known as "I statements," and According to the American Psychological Association (APA), they help you focus on your experience rather than point fingers or blame the other person.

This technique can 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.

Avoid hostility

Hostility includes:

  • Verbal and physical aggression
  • Silent treatment
  • Intense quarrels

These types of communication 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 they're angry. Also, give your kids the opportunity to express their feelings about the argument.

The Bottom Line

Disagreements between parents will happen no matter what, and kids are bound to witness an argument or two. But parents can argue in a healthy way by expressing feelings constructively and solving problems without slamming doors or being nasty to each other. When you model healthy disagreements, kids may walk away learning how to better solve problems with others too.

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