Q. My friend tells me she and her husband have a policy of never arguing in front of the children. My husband and I do have sometimes heated arguments in front of our children. Is this likely to hurt my children?
A. The question of whether or not to argue in front of your children depends a great deal on what you mean by “argue.” If children are able to witness their parents or other adults they admire having disagreements that are respectfully and satisfactorily resolved, it can be extremely beneficial. These types of experiences give children a model for compromise and conflict resolution. It also helps the child understand that it is OK to disagree with loved ones. It may even help children understand that an argument can bring people closer if their parents are closer as a result of the dispute.
If you and your spouse have difficulty satisfactorily resolving your disputes, it is probably not helpful to have the children witness these discussions. For example, if one partner is always giving in to the other, it may give children the wrong idea about compromise. If decisions are left unmade because of difficulty resolving problems, children are not taught to adequately resolve disputes.
These are some subjects that are inappropriate to discuss in front of children. Sexual conflicts, marital infidelity, and divorce are examples of these topics. It is not helpful to have disagreements about discipline of the children in front of them. This often undermines the authority of one parent and prevents the parents from presenting a united front to the children. This is extremely important where adolescents are concerned. In general, all discussions about the children should be left for private times unless the purpose of the discussion is to elicit the input of the child or the children in question.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell if an argument will get out of hand. If it appears that is leading in a direction that is potentially hurtful to your child, agree to continue the argument in private at a later time. “Arguments” that lead to physical violence are not only hurtful; they can be emotionally abusive of the child. If the arguments reach a point where your child is frightened, it is best not done in front of him/her. It is also not appropriate for children to witness either parent verbally abusing the other. This gives children several very damaging messages. It gives them the idea that conflicts are very dangerous. It models verbal aggression or victimization. It may also give children the idea that they can be verbally abusive to one or both parents.
Some final comments about this issue. It is often distressful for children to see their parents angry with one another. Most children have very clever ways of stopping or getting in the middle of an argument between the parents. Children choose these times to misbehave or get in their own fights. At these times it is best if the parents momentarily stop their argument, explain that they are having a discussion, reassure their child that it will be resolved, and that each parent still cares about the other. It is also helpful to let children know that it doesn’t concern them, and that it is not their job to stop the discussion. Spend some time with your child after the argument is over to allow him/her to talk about feeling and to help him/her understand that sometimes disagreements are unavoidable, necessary, and helpful in a relationship. If that is the situation they witnessed, it will help reinforce the idea that conflicts can be beneficial if a satisfactory agreement is the result.
Note: This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent. They are published here to help the BIPR parenting community.