Is Arguing Really Bad for the Children?

Why alarm over the risks of stress threatens the art of argument.

Posted Apr 08, 2013

Couples who decide to separate often know that statistically speaking, divorce does not serve children well; nonetheless, they may console themselves with the supposition that it must be worse for children to witness their parents battle things out.

A new study suggests that responses to parental arguments begin in infancy. By the time a baby reaches the age of five-months, he or she normally responds to other people’s emotional states, and is particularly sensitive to vocal anger directed towards their mother. Exposure to an environment of anger does not inure babies to anger; arguments, however, familiar, do not seem to fade into a normal, acceptable background. Even sleeping infants can be seen to respond to an angry tone of voice. In “What Sleeping Babies Hear” published last week in Psychological Science, the authors Graham, Fisher and Pfeifer show that infants from 6-months to 12-months “from high conflict homes showed greater reactivity to very angry tone of voice in brain areas linked to stress and emotion regulation, such as the interior cingulate cortex, caudate, thalamus and hypothalamus.” The authors go on to argue that “early exposure to interpersonal conflict may also increase risk for later emotional and psychological problems.”

To psychologists this sounds an alarm. Prolonged stress generated by anger (as well as by neglect or abuse) has a physiological impact on a child that then lowers his or her tolerance for stress. When a child is flooded with unremitting anxiety, the young brain forms fewer of the mental circuits needed to regulate emotional states. Michael Rutter says that “This can lead to later difficulties with behavior management, affect regulation and self-concept… For example, a child can’t self-soothe when stress increases, can’t manage increasing arousal, acts on impulse, shame overwhelms sense of self, can’t take responsibility for behavior, learn from experience and manage anger.” The awful irony is that children who most need to acquire the skill to soothe themselves in a stressful environment may be the least equipped to do so. Long-term stress is toxic to the young brain and impairs its key task, which is learning how to integrate and regulate thoughts and emotions.

The importance of parental calm is also highlighted in Steve Biddulph’s recent book Raising Girls. To feel secure and have the confidence to find their spark, Biddulph argues that girls need an environment of parental calm.

The fact that these messages are likely to increase anxiety in parents (anxiety about being stressed, anxiety about being anxious) does not of course mean that they have no validity.

However, is parental stress something that a child cannot tolerate? Is arguing, engaging in conflict, expressing and responding to anger, something a parent simply should not do? Is arguing always bad for the children?

My research shows that it is not.

Arguing in a broad sense is an activity fundamental to all close relationships. It is a way people discover, explore and express their boundaries, the limits of compromise, and the hot spots of their positions relative to one another. Arguing is a way of negotiating and up-dating relationships. Of course some arguments destroy relationships, too. John Gottman, who has studied marital quarrels for decades and tested these against predictions of which couples would stay together and which would divorce, concludes that what matters to the strength of a marriage is not whether a couple argue, but how they argue. Do arguments include ridicule, contempt and global criticism? Do they open the flow of feelings and thoughts, or do they result in stonewalling, a freezing (as it were) of emotional assets, leaving one person frustrated and bewildered, or resulting in mutual avoidance? If so, then they put the relationship in danger; but if they avoid these pitfalls, they may be part of the maintenance process of marriage.

Children themselves need opportunities to experience a parent’s anger directed towards them. They need to express their own anger, and discover that both parent and child survive these bust ups. Excessive concern about the ill effects of anger can result in the good behavior syndrome – that tense politeness in which even the smallest surge of tension sets off a spray of anxiety; the anxiety requires placation and cover-up with false smiles and polite words. Children seek honest and open conversations with parents. Though involvement in the minutiae and depth of adult issues is not appropriate, children need access to a range of experiences. Children – and girls in particular - are shrewd observers of the emotional weather. They see through the façade of persistent calm. When they come to understand that a parent’s calm façade covers up for more complicated feelings, they are likely to accuse a parent of dishonesty, which to them is a betrayal. Not arguing itself can be very stressful, and children are as sensitive to insincere harmony as they are to argument.

Arguing is something we grown-ups do, and our sons and daughters need to witness people – even people close to them - arguing, expressing anger, standing up for themselves, opposing one another, and (in many cases) coming together again. As children themselves get angry, and they fight with each other and their parents, they extend their interpersonal education. They learn about conflict and conflict resolution. They exercise and develop self-assertion. When parents learn to argue well – when they argue without destroying a relationship, when they distinguish between their own anger and other people’s faults, when the move from fury to calm, they teach their children important lessons in negotiation and perspective-taking. There is also good evidence that teenage girls become more in self-assertive themselves as they see their mothers engage in argument with a partner. It is far more helpful to develop the art of arguing well than to fear the danger of quarrels.