Moms can meltdown and dads can get stressed out, but is it ever OK for to argue in front of the kids? The age-old rule to “Never fight in front of the children” is put to the test through new research that suggests nuance is necessary. Parents who can have conflicts in front of their children but end up with forgiveness can instill helpful coping skills in their kids. Relationships can be sticky, and there needs to be room for the easy and the hard to exist together. Of course, parent battles that spark uncontrolled emotional outbursts should happen in private. Name-calling, threats or other forms of aggression are never OK. But arguing in front of kids without resentment and working toward understanding can yield big rewards for your children.
“If you can say, ‘Well, I’m mad at you for this,’ but focus on a future solution — and your kids hear you saying this — they’re going to believe that really good things can come out of disagreements,” says Laurie Puhn. She’s an attorney, mediator and author of Fight Less, Love More (Rodale; 2010).
What Research Shows
Research shows that kids who witness parents having constructive conflicts learn how to argue. When parents show an effort to support each other and even show affection, it’s a win. They exhibit better social skills, including cooperation and empathy. This is when it’s OK to argue in front of the kids.
In the book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable (Viking; 2016), author Dan Shapiro says he and his wife will deliberately work out some disagreements in front of their boys, ages 7 and 13. “We want our children to see that conflict isn’t bad and that one can learn a lot from it,” Shapiro says. He is the director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program in Cambridge, Mass.
Parents can strive for harmony rather than victory, Shapiro says. Try to avoid digging in on your position, but rather, aim to see each other’s point of view. It’s also very helpful to tell your kids, once the moment has passed and you’ve found reconciliation, that all is well. To say something like, “We had a disagreement but Mommy and Daddy talked and we resolved it and it’s OK,” Shapiro suggests.
Kids have sharp emotional radars and they can sense tension between parents. Know that unresolved problems after a parent disagreement are linked to anxiety in kids in addition to depression and even social phobias. This comes from a 2016 study out of the University of Nebraska. Even if parents fight infrequently, a higher ration of positive exchanges between them is linked to less sadness and worry.
To Have Arguments That Are Beneficial for Kids
— Acknowledge your partner’s feelings and views.
— Ask for advice on how to solve a problem, rather than hurling blame.
— Restrict fights over chronic areas of conflict to a limited amount of time, like one evening a week.
— Keep disputes under control by focusing only on the problem at hand, rather than old sources of resentment.
— Look together for solutions, rather than squaring off to do battle.
— For small children, use physical gestures to show you’ve made up, like a hug.
— Consider role-playing constructive problem-solving for your children.