“The other night, my husband and I argued at dinner in front of the children. My five-year–old son yelled at us to ‘Keep quiet!’ … My three-year–old had a tough time going to bed, which is unusual for her. Could this have had anything to do with mommy and daddy arguing?”
In every kind of human relationship, conflict is an inevitable consequence. Even as individuals, we sometimes have conflicts within ourselves or with our members. A basic litmus test is this: how often has your tongue been bit by your teeth? If this is an occurrence you’ve experienced more than 5 times in your life, why should conflict with others and your spouse, in particular, be any surprise? If you have children, chances are quite high that some of those conflicts will happen in the presence of your children. This brings up an important question:
“When you argue with your spouse, does it hurt your child?”
Many experts had dispelled such fears and reassured parents that there is no damage done in children watching their parents fight as long as they get to witness the reconciliation afterwards. However, recent findings in neurological research debunk that notion. Predictably, when children witness angry yelling, their stress hormones shoot up. Infants are not spared in this too. Actually, an infant can register angry, loud and upsetting voices while asleep and will experience a surge of stress hormones that take time to decline.
Therefore, research already confirms what children can tell you without any shadow of doubt, which is that they find it terrifying to hear adults screaming at each other. Parents are a child’s first source and model of security. When that security is threatened, the world seems out of control and becomes a scary place for the child. Because the stress hormones stay in the body for hours afterward, children become anxious long after the yelling spree is over, making it difficult for them to fall asleep. Since children can’t seek comfort from the arguing adults, they bottle up their fears. Unfortunately, as with all emotions, bottled emotions are bound to cause them to act out with anxiety, defiance, and misbehaviour.
One of the worst consequences of witnessing parents yell at each other is the unintended message it signals to the child that when adults have disagreements, yelling is the “grown-up” way to deal with it. But that begs the question, is it altogether bad for parents to disagree in the presence of their children?
A straightforward answer is “NO!”
It’s actually a learning curve for children to see adults disagree with each other in a respectful way and state opinions without denigrating another person’s point of view. In other words, children benefit a great deal from observing healthy disagreements. Even in moments where tempers escalate, if you’re able to resolve things swiftly and your children are able to closely follow how you repair and reconnect, you’re modelling the resilience of relationships.
By all means, please go ahead and work through mild differences that will come up with your spouse in front of your children. However, you must remember that as soon as your disagreement degenerates into outright disrespect or full-blown yelling, you’re completely out of the healthy zone. At this point, it is best to postpone the conversation to behind closed doors and agree on a “safe word” that either of you can use when either of you gets triggered during discussions. You can choose a code word or phrase that says something like “I love you but this is getting too hot to handle with the children here; Let’s come back to this later.”
The trick is to ensure that you infuse humour as soon as things start to get heated and end the “public” phase of your discussion with a bear hug because your children can detect that drop in the emotional temperature of the home. Doing this will help them relax and understand that no matter how tumultuous a conversation is, you’re both still very committed to working things out positively. You’ll help them feel safe. That brings us to the next question: What if you’ve fought with your partner in front of your child and you were all out yelling and disrespectful in the things you said and did?
Don’t fret! The risk factor for the child comes from repeated experiences. So, you must ensure that this form of communication is not the norm in your home.
Try this experiment: Take a look at the way you interact with your spouse through the eyes of your child over the next few days. The purpose of this experiment is to assess your communication through your child’s perspective:
- Does your tone stay respectful even when you disagree?
- Do your voices stay at a calm level?
- Do you both find a way to express your wants and needs without “attacking” each other?
- Is the tone in your home generally one of warmth and support?
- Does your child see daily substantial evidence of emotional generosity on both sides?
- Do you make a point of “making up” in front of your child?
- Are there at least ten positive interactions for every negative interaction?
Studies have proven that these practices are not only good for your spousal relationship but also for the parent-child relationship. As your child observes and learns from these healthy connections and disagreements, these practices are ingrained in their behaviour as well. In subsequent articles, I will show you how to turn a fight with your spouse into a positive learning experience for your child and the tools you could utilize to ensure healthy conflict resolution.
Personal Note from TBOG:
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