Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have a good marriage, but once in a while we get into a yelling match that makes me glad we don’t live in an apartment. There’s never any physical contact, neither of us misses the chance to slam a door or kick the furniture to make a point. We know we’re just venting and we always make up just fine afterwards, but it’s the kids I worry about. Is it doing them any harm to see their parents fight? If so, how can we break the habit?
A: The short answer is, yes, living in a high-conflict home may be doing some short- or long-term damage to your children. According to a recent joint study by the Universities of Rochester and Notre Dame, children who see their parents in angry conflict on a regular basis are more likely to feel negative emotions and stress and to develop long-lasting, negative impressions of marriage and family life. Rather than becoming accustomed to the hostility, children actually become more sensitive to it and less resilient as time goes by.
Children learn by watching. Think of the messages kids receive about conflict resolution and how to treat others when the two people they love the most are at each others’ throats. It’s not the kind of modeling we want to provide.
Of course, breaking your fighting-in-front-of-the-kids habit isn’t going to be easy and it’s not going to happen overnight. Here are some tips to get the process started:
•Don’t pretend the issues have gone away. Shoving them deep inside is not going to solve anything. Every marriage has issues. Your goal should be to deal with them in a way that doesn’t claim the kids, or your relationship, as collateral damage.
•When you feel the urge to fight, try to conjure up an image in your mind of your kids. Then physically turn and walk away.
•Write down what you’re thinking so you can discuss it later, when you’ve cooled down and/or the kids are not around.
•Agree with your wife on some sort of signal when you’re about ready to pop so you can both refocus and back away – or at least take it somewhere private.
•When you find yourselves in conflict, start statements with “I” as much as possible instead of “you.” Sure, this sounds trite and you’ve heard it a hundred times before. But have you actually tried it? “You always put me down!” is much more likely to make the other person defensive and escalate anger than “I feel put down when you say things like that.”
•Try to see your marital conflicts as problems to be worked out, not competitions to be won.
•Don’t solve all your problems. Although eliminating knock-down-drag-out fights in front of the kids is essential, don’t turn your house into a completely fight-free zone. Watching their parents work through minor, everyday problems sends a strong message to kids that people really can resolve issues without throwing tantrums (and furniture).
I realize that all of this is easier said than done. But the next time you feel your anger welling up, try to keep in mind that while you and your wife may be directing your anger at each other, your kids are going to be receiving it, too. Finally, if the two of you have tried all of these suggestions and you’re still not able to keep the lid on a bit tighter, marital counseling can be very helpful – if not for you, then at least for your kids.