Fighting in Front of the Kids: Good or Bad?

In yesterday’s online edition of the Wall Street Journal, Andrea Petersen wrote an article entitled, “The Family That Fights Together”.  In it, she discussed the complexities that couples face, when deciding whether and when to fight in front of their children.  Petersen cited a 2009 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, which found that “‘constructive’ marital conflict was associated with an increase in children’s emotional security.”  However, she also cited another study, published in the May 2013 issue of the journal, Psychological Science.  This particular study had 24 babies, ages 6-to-12 months, lying asleep in a fMRI scanner.  While they were asleep, these babies were exposed to a variety of tones of voice, ranging from neutral to very angry.  The babies who came from families with more spousal conflict had higher responses in the areas of the brain related to stress reactions and emotion regulation.  Apparently, babies can still sense conflict, even when they are sleeping.

Professional opinions can vary widely, regarding whether it is a good idea to fight in front of the children.  Petersen quoted Dr. Thomas McInerney, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who stated that parents who have disagreements should “do that in private as much as possible.  It is the rare instance when [couples] can keep it rational and keep it calm.”  On the other hand, Petersen also quoted Dr. Kirsten Cullen Sharma, co-director at the NYU Langone Medical Center, Child Study Center, saying “One of the great skills parents can offer their children is conflict resolution.”

So, what’s a parent to do, when trying to decide whether to fight in front of the kids?  I believe the “Top Three” things to consider when faced with this question are:

1.  Is the topic I am fighting about appropriate for my kids to hear about?

Highly emotional “adult” topics, such as the couple’s intimacy issues, or parenting disagreements, such as disciplinary issues, should be discussed away from  the children’s  presence.

2.  What do I want to teach my kids about handling anger and conflict with others?

It can be a significant life lesson for children, when they see their parents fighting fairly, respectfully, and maturely with each other.  Since children tend to pick up their parents’ habits, they can greatly benefit from learning GOOD habits on how to express their anger in healthy ways.

3.  If I choose to fight in front of my kids, how will I RESOLVE the fight, in front of my kids?

In using the fighting as a “teaching moment” for our kids, we need to remember how vitally important it is to show them not only how to fight fairly, respectfully, and maturely, but also how to come to a peaceful, appropriate, and mutually beneficial resolution.

Our kids are more sensitive and intuitive than what we give them credit for, and they always learn more from what we DO rather than from what we say.  If we keep that in mind, we will tend to make the best parenting decisions, no matter what the situation.

There may be times in our life when the fighting within our families becomes overwhelming or unmanageable.  That is when it may be helpful to find a licensed family counselor, who can help all members of your family to address and resolve conflict in a healthier, more peaceful, and more mutually beneficial way like this.

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