"Yesterday my husband and I had an argument at dinner time in front of the kids. My four year old daughter yelled at us to ‘Be quiet!’ … My two year old had a tough time going to bed, which is unusual for him. Could that have had to do with mommy and daddy arguing?”
Conflict is part of every human relationship. If we live with children, those conflicts will sometimes come up in front of the kids. In the past, most experts reassured parents that there’s no harm in children seeing them fight, as long as the kids also see the parents make up afterwards. However, recent developments in neurological research challenge this view. Not surprisingly, it turns out that when children hear yelling, their stress hormones shoot up. In fact, even a sleeping infant registers loud, angry voices and experiences a rush of stress chemicals that takes some time to diminish.
So the research confirms what any child can tell you, which is that it’s frightening when adults yell at each other. After all, parents are the child’s source of security. When parents seem out of control, the world becomes a scary place. This “mobilization” response can make it difficult for kids to fall asleep, because the stress hormones can stay in the child’s body for hours. Since kids can’t turn to the arguing adults for comfort, they stuff their fear, and it pops out in anxiety, defiance or misbehavior.
Worst of all, when adults yell at each other, it gives children the message that when humans have disagreements, that's the “grown up” way to handle them.
Is it ever okay for parents to disagree in front of kids? Doesn’t it model the resilience of relationships, and how to repair them? Yes! It's terrific for children to see adults disagree with each other respectfully, and ask for what they need without making the other person wrong. So by all means, go ahead and work through differences that come up with your partner in front of your kids — but only if you can avoid getting triggered and letting your disagreement disintegrate into yelling or disrespect. These scenarios are actually good modeling for your child:
1. One parent snaps at the other, then immediately course corrects: “I’m so sorry – I’m just feeling stressed – can we try that over? What I meant to say was…” Kids learn from this modeling that anyone can get angry, but that we can take responsibility for our own emotions, apologize, and re-connect. You'll see your child start to apologize and course correct, too.
2. Parents work through a difference of opinion without getting triggered and raising their voices. For instance, if you and your partner have a good-natured discussion about whether to buy a new car, your child learns that humans who live together can have different opinions, listen to each other, and work toward a win/win decision – all respectfully and with affection. Having these kinds of discussions in front of kids is great modeling, as long as you agree to postpone further conversation if one of you gets triggered and it becomes a heated argument. In those cases, be sure to summon up your sense of humor as soon as things start to get heated, and close the "public" phase of your discussion with a big hug, so your child can relax, knowing that no matter how difficult the discussion, the adults are still committed to working things out positively.
3. Parents notice that they have a conflict brewing and agree to discuss it later. Hopefully, this happens before there’s any yelling — or you’ll be modeling yelling! And hopefully, you can close the interaction with a big, public, hug. If you're too mad, take some space to calm down and then prioritize the hug in front of your child, with a family mantra like “It’s okay to get mad....You can be mad at someone and still love them at the same time….We always make up.” This takes maturity, but it models self-regulation and repair. And it's crucial to restoring your child's sense of safety.
If you’ve fought with your partner in front of your child, please don’t panic. Most couples have. The danger comes from repeated experiences.
What about the research by Mark Cummings, reported in Po Bronson's book Nurture Shock, suggesting that parents just need to make up in front of the child? Bronson reports that as long as parents "make up" with each other after the argument, the child recovered without damage from the incident. BUT as Bronson says, and as Cummings stressed, the parents in this research were disagreeing, NOT YELLING. And there was no disrespect or insult in these scripted encounters. Cummings has already established, with repeated research, that yelling and disrespect between parents is damaging to kids. In the studies reported by Bronson, Cummings set out to explore whether "plain old everyday conflict" is damaging to kids.
So these were encounters like those I have described above, in which the parents had a difference of opinion but did not yell at each other. As it turned out, even these disagreements were very upsetting to the children who witnessed them. Luckily, when the children witnessed parents "resolving" the argument with affection, the kids were fine afterwards. Since Cummings has repeatedly found that yelling is extremely distressing to children, and since we know that children learn from what they witness, it seems unlikely that simply "making up" in front of kids would ameliorate the effects of yelling or disrespect.
Bottom line: All couples have disagreements. It's best for kids if we model how to handle those disagreements with respect and affection, looking for solutions instead of blame. Adult fierceness is always scary to kids. And of course, it's best for our partnerships, too. Anger is a message to us about what we need. There's always a way to ask for what we need without attacking the other person. It's never appropriate to dump anger on another person, in front of your kids or not.
Not so easy to do? You're right. Most of us never learned how to manage our own emotions, express our needs without attacking, and handle conflict in a healthy way. So what does healthy conflict resolution look like? And how can you repair things with your kids if you've been fighting in front of them? We'll get into these questions in our next two posts. (And then we'll get back to your kids!)