Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I are happily married, but every once in a while we have a huge argument. There’s no violence, of course, but there is plenty of yelling and door slamming and some occasional name calling. He and I usually recover pretty quickly, but I’m concerned about the effect that our fighting might be having on our kids, who are 7 and 10. Should we be worried or will the kids get used to it?
A: Yes, you should be worried, and no, the kids won’t get used to it. Conflict and disagreements are a normal part of almost any relationship, but what you’re describing goes far beyond “normal.” It’s great that you and your husband aren’t violent toward each other. But research suggests that you may still be doing some serious harm to your children.
Children need to feel safe and secure in their home. However, when they see their parents engage in openly hostile conflict, they feel the exact opposite of safe and secure. Children in high-conflict homes have more emotional problems, are more aggressive, and are more likely to be depressed and/or anxious. The fear and confusion they feel as a result of long-term exposure to the stress and insecurity caused by their parents’ fighting can cause permanent damage to children’s brain, negatively affecting their memory and cognitive function and in some cases, leaving them with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It can also take a toll on their physical health, leaving them more likely to get sick. And again, they don’t get used to it. Ever. In fact, over time, children become sensitive to the fighting and less resilient.
Besides that, think of the lessons you’re giving them about conflict resolution and how to treat others. Kids learn by watching. What are they learning from you?
Contrary to what you might think, it’s not a good idea to try to turn your home into a completely fight-free zone. Instead, try to simply dial things down a few notches. Kids are plenty smart, and watching their parents ignore or give each other the cold shoulder can be almost as damaging as watching them fight.
Plus, several studies suggest that your kids may actually benefit from seeing you and your husband disagree – as long as you do it civilly and without slinging accusations or calling each other names. Watching the two people they love most handle their disagreements respectfully will encourage your children to do the same. It may also help them learn some negotiation and bargaining skills that will come in handy later in life.
How you resolve your arguments is just as important as how you have them. Watching their parents work through minor, everyday problems sends a strong message to kids that people really can solve problems without throwing tantrums (and furniture) or ending relationships. That’s an incredibly valuable lesson that will help them throughout their adult lives.
A little fighting here and there may be good for you too. Repressed anger has been linked to depression, high blood pressure, and ulcers. It can also come out in more subtle ways: “forgetting” to do the errands you promised to do, not passing on phone messages, leaving no gas in the car, and so on.
So make a point of letting the kids see you and your husband have a few spats about easily resolvable things. Schedule weekly (or, if necessary, daily) meetings away from the kids to discuss bigger issues. Try this for a month. If you’re still not able to keep the lid on a bit tighter, marital counseling can be very helpful.
Read Armin Brott’s blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad.
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