Food for Thought

How To Argue In Front Of Your Kids In A Way That’s Actually Healthy, According To An Expert

Fighting in front of the kids is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be damaging.

Originally Published: 
Parents have a disagreement as their kids watch.
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When my husband and I had our daughter, we were immediately given (well-intended) warnings to expect sleepless nights and an increase in arguments. And, lo and behold, those warnings were spot-on. When you're running on very little sleep and dealing with a chaotic being in the house, it only makes sense that more bickering may occur. Once we left the days of babyhood behind and our daughter started to mirror our behavior, though, we had to take a better look at exactly how we could deal with disagreements in front of her.

According to some parenting experts, arguing in front of your kids can actually be healthy. Or, more specifically, it can be beneficial to have healthy disagreements around your kids. But how can you and your partner make a heated disagreement a learning opportunity versus causing damage for your kid or children?

Samantha Bickman, a licensed mental health counselor at Calming Tides Counseling, outlined a few ways you can model good behavior in front of kids when you and your partner don't see eye to eye.

The Good (and the Bad) of Arguing in Front of Your Kids

[When done appropriately], having disagreements in front of your kids can role model to them how to disagree on something and remain calm," Bickman says. "It shows them that it happens for all of us, and it doesn't mean that we love each other any less. Disagreements are normal within all relationships."

Of course, just as kids mirror good behavior, they can also mirror less-than-good behavior. While calmly dealing with a disagreement in front of your kids can help them learn how to talk through problems, having a more heated argument can have a far more damaging effect.

"If the parents' disagreement leads to yelling, name-calling, or any other disrespectful or aggressive behavior, then the kids are learning that disagreements are always intense and lead to high anxiety and distress," Bickman says. "This can cause them to avoid having difficult conversations with others, avoid expressing their needs, and avoid setting boundaries. It also role models how relationships look and lets them believe that treating their partner or being treated by their partner like that is acceptable ... continuing the cycle."

A 2017 study in the European Journey of Pediatrics showed that repeated early exposure to inter-parental conflict could increase the risk of adolescent mental health problems. As Bickman points out, witnessing repeated aggressive behavior between parents can lead to anxiety and distress for children, ultimately hurting their mental health and potentially leading to behavioral problems over time. Because of this, learning how to have healthy disagreements in front of your children is of the utmost importance.

If you're going to disagree, here's how to do it… better.

"If you can put the disagreement on pause, do it," says Bickman. "Take it into another room or save it for a later time when the kids aren't around. And remember that kids are more aware than we tend to give them credit for. They can read body language just as well as you can."

However, if you are disagreeing in front of your kids, there are ways to do it in a way that will help them learn and ultimately have a net positive impact instead of negative.

"If the disagreement does happen in front of the kids, take the time to talk to them about it," says Bickman. "Explain what was going on, let them know that parents sometimes disagree and get upset, and let them know that it wasn't OK to use that language or yell at each other — whatever it was that wasn't appropriate, or that could have been confusing for the kids to hear. And open it up for discussion and curiosity. Ask them if they have any questions or how they felt seeing their parents fight. It's important to normalize and validate their experience."

She also points out the importance of using a "leveled calm tone," along with respectful language. "If you don't want them to repeat something you've said, then don't say it," she explains. "How you treat their parent is setting the stage on how they treat the parent and others."

As Bickman shares, "Disagreements are normal and a part of life." Because of this, teaching our kids how to disagree in a healthy and respectful way will help them not only in the short term but ultimately help determine how they speak with their partner in future relationships.

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