Nearly every weekend, Jennifer and Keith Yanowitz have the same old fight. "I can predict it," says Jennifer, an advertising account manager in New York City and the mother of daughters Alexandra, 5, and Jordan, 3. "Keith and I take turns getting up with the girls around 7 a.m. so one of us can sleep late. When it's my turn, I always make a healthy breakfast while the kids watch only a few minutes of TV," she explains. "Then, we get dressed and read books or head to the playground. I like the girls to be busy and active in the morning."
The scenario is a bit different when Dad's in charge. "When I walk into the living room, the shades are drawn and the girls are still in their pajamas and wired because they've been glued to the TV for three hours," Jennifer says. "Keith is working on his laptop and instead of a proper breakfast at the table, he has only given them a snack, like a few pieces of fruit."
As far as Keith is concerned, one morning of hanging out isn't a big deal. He tries to get his wife to lighten up, but she's already shifted into drill-sergeant mode: "You're kidding, right? We're going out. Alexandra, get dressed. Jordan, try going to the potty." Jennifer says that her husband is a terrific father and that most of the time they support each other. "But this is a real sore spot between us," she admits. "We've discussed it, he promises not to do it -- and nothing changes! It makes me crazy." In a flash, their conversation escalates into a confrontation and the girls jump in too: "Mommy, Daddy, stop!" "The whole mood of the day shifts -- and not in a good way," says Jennifer.
Honestly, haven't we all been there? At one time or another, most of us have found ourselves arguing with our partner in the presence of little ears. "It's impossible to agree all the time -- and wrong to pretend you do," says Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development in New York City.
The problem is, fighting in front of the kids affects them more than we realize. "Children are emotional Geiger counters," says E. Mark Cummings, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana, and an expert in how family relationships affect child development. "Even 6-month-olds are acutely sensitive to all types of conflict between Mom and Dad -- that includes bickering, hostility, and defensiveness, as well as physical fights." A handful of studies have shown that blood pressure rises in infants when parents argue within earshot. They may not understand the words, but they register the conflict and try to figure out what it means.
In fact, new studies conducted jointly by Dr. Cummings's team and researchers at the University of Rochester found that parents' relationship with each other, and how they handle everyday conflicts, are critical for a child's well- being. When parents get along well, a child's sense of security deepens and he can confidently explore and learn about his world. "But frequent, unresolved fighting chips away at that confidence, triggering sadness, anxiety, and fear in children of all ages," Dr. Cummings explains.
On the other hand, children do learn positive lessons from parents' arguments. "Kids need to know that even happy couples can disagree, and that anger is a normal legitimate emotion," says Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Institute at New York University's Child Study Center. Emily Terry, of Boston, reports that while she and her husband, Dave, try not to have "awful, mean fights" in front of their three kids, "animated discussions" do happen, like the recent one that had them bickering about where to put the new printer for their computer. "I want them to see that arguments are a part of life," Terry explains. "It doesn't mean that we don't like each other or that we're on the brink of divorce."
Your fights can impact how your children handle their own anger too. "If they never learn to verbalize their true feelings, they may grow up squashing those feelings or believing that conflicts can never be resolved constructively," explains psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Denver. When they hit a turbulent time in their future relationships, or disagree with a colleague or a boss, they won't have the skills to untangle and resolve differences. And if you have all of your fights behind closed doors, or tell the kids, "We're not fighting" when it's clear that you are, they won't learn to trust their own perceptions -- or you, for that matter.
That doesn't mean you must explain the issue at hand in exhaustive detail. "Daddy and I got angry at each other but we talked about it and figured it out" is sufficient. "You don't have to iron out your differences in front of them," says Dr. Gallagher, "but do take responsibility for the part you each played in any argument and make sure the children know that your quarrel wasn't their fault." If they can see that you've genuinely settled your differences, they'll learn that arguments may be laced with hot emotion -- but they can also lead to solutions.
Lower your anger ceilings. "Each one of us, consciously or not, has a level of aggression we will tolerate in a relationship," says Dr. Heitler. The key is to recognize the signals your body is sending before your conversation becomes excessively heated. Is your anger building up to a point where the conversation just isn't going to be productive? Are you talking louder? Is your stomach churning? Your mind only focused on what your partner is doing wrong? Dial down the tension by taking a break: Get a drink of water, flip through a magazine -- and resume the conversation when you feel calm again. If you're in the car, or crunched for time, change the subject and come up with a plan to reconvene later. You may think your kids aren't listening to your argument, but trust us: They are. So make an agreement with your spouse that if an argument pops up, you'll both press the pause button.
Until you can continue the discussion, jot down the points you want to make. The simple act of writing can help organize your thoughts and bring clarity to an issue. You'll be better prepared to speak calmly when you reopen the discussion.
Take issue with the behavior, not the person.
Always start a conversation using "I" statements that describe how you feel about something: "I get upset when you give the kids snacks right before dinner," works better than "We've discussed this a thousand times! You never listen to me!" Stick to one topic at a time and, as you've heard before, delete the words "always" and "never" from your vocabulary. Generalizing puts your partner on the defensive, adding fuel to the fire.
Don't force your kids to referee.
All they want is a cease-fire. "Children should never have to divide their loyalties," cautions Dr. Gallagher. "When you start to hear, 'Mommy, don't be mad at Daddy,' it's a red flag that you need to tone it down."
Don't try to "win."
Think of arguments as objectively as possible: They're simply problems to be solved. When you respond respectfully to each other's viewpoint, kids see that there's more than one solution to a problem -- and that compromise is not a bad thing.
Be sensitive to signs of kid stress.
Children, like adults, show their anxiety in different ways: Some withdraw when they hear or even sense conflict, covering their ears or eyes or running from the room. Some kids act out at home or school; still others rush to the defense of one parent or the other. Rather than becoming accustomed to the hostility, these children grow less resilient as time goes by. Headaches, stomachaches, or overeating are all clues that the fallout from your fights is affecting them.
Babies and Toddlers
They tune in to your tone and body language as well as to the emotional undercurrent of the conversation. You may be engaged in a lively debate about health-care reform; your child only senses that the two people he loves most are yelling at each other. If you catch yourself doing this, slow down and lower your voice. Give a group hug, smile, and look your child in the eye as you say, "It's okay! Mommy and Daddy still love each other."
Kids this age may think they caused the dispute. Yes, they usually try hard to avoid blame, but there's a bigger developmental force at work. "They're ruled by magical thinking, and believe they're the center of the universe," says Dr. Klein. So they may think: "If only I didn't bop my sister on the head, Mommy and Daddy wouldn't be yelling." Reassure them otherwise.
Children older than 5 or 6 will sometimes assume the worst -- that you're heading for divorce court -- if quarrels go unresolved. Dr. Cummings found that kids in high-conflict homes may suffer from anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. They can also have trouble paying attention in school and getting along with friends. Instead of trying to brush off a fight by saying, "Nothing's wrong," acknowledge the disagreement and report the resolution, if that's possible. And when there is no resolution, don't mislead your child, but explain that even working to resolve the issue helps everyone in the family.
You may find it comforting to know that sometimes even the experts don't get it right. Dr. Klein recalls a recent heated argument with her husband about whether their 4-year-old son, Jesse, should stay home from preschool. "He woke up crying and insisted on staying home," she explains. As she rushed around, getting everyone ready for the day, she debated the issue with her husband, a physician. "I didn't think Jesse was really sick -- I thought chances were good that what he actually needed was a mental-health day. Plus, having him stay home would require some serious maneuvering because we'd have to find a sitter to stay with him," says Dr Klein. "But I figured it was better to be safe than sorry, since this was highly unsual behavior for a kid who loves school."
Her husband didn't agree. "Absolutely not," he declared, loudly. "He should go to school."
"What's the big deal?" Dr. Klein countered even louder. After several minutes of "very spirited words," the couple was able to amicably reach a decision: Jesse would go to work with Dr. Klein. "My husband and I agree about most things," she explains. "But certain things just matter more to me than to him and vice versa. We've decided that when that happens, whoever cares the most about the issue gets his or her way."
Sometimes, parents can agree to disagree. And sometimes they can't. If the relationship you have isn't the one you want, don't settle and don't continue to squash angry feelings. Talking to a professional -- whether it's a psychologist, a member of the clergy, or a marital therapist trained to work with couples -- can help you find solutions to the problems that divide you. Counseling can also show you both how to recognize and acknowledge the parts you each play in the drama, provide a safe place to air feelings, and, most important, teach you strong communication skills. In fact, even good unions can benefit from checking in with a pro when you hit bumps, so you can get better at articulating your concerns and resolving your differences calmly when you see land mines ahead. In the end, you'll be helping both yourselves and your children.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Parents magazine.