Should we fight in front of the kids?

This is a great question and probably one that every parent has discussed at some point. Anyone who has felt the burning of their children’s eyes or the sudden thunder of their silence as they have a heated argument with their partner in the kitchen understands the panic that comes with this question. Am I traumatising my child? Will this be a painful memory that they will need to process on some expensive therapist’s couch 15 years into the future?

The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Fighting in front of our children in a destructive manner can have damaging effects on our little ones. Children may themselves exhibit anger and destructive behaviour if they regularly witness hostile arguments between their parents. Alternatively, children may become more withdrawn and internalise their emotions. The stress of this exposure can lead to sleep disturbance, poor attention, academic difficulties and a range of mental health disorders. Children may also learn unhelpful ways of relating to others which are then transferred to their interactions with their peers.

However, not all disagreements in front of our children are harmful. Specifically, it tends to be the more destructive patterns such as aggressive behaviour, both physical and verbal, giving “silent treatment”, name-calling, insults, walking out or threatening to leave, sulking and bullying that are damaging to children. Such behaviours are damaging for all involve and, incidentally, do very little to resolve the conflict at hand.

Based on these findings, disagreeing in front of our children is not the issue, how we do it is.

So how should we fight in front of the kids? Well, abstaining from destructive conflict skills like those listed above is always a helpful step. However, there are a number of useful steps that we can incorporate into our conflict resolution that can be helpful as well.

There are some things that we should avoid arguing about in front of our children. Money, intimate relationship issues and conflict with other members of the family are examples of such topics that are best left until the children are in bed. In my experience, fighting about such issues only leads to insecurity in the family dynamic and chronic worry in children.

Lastly, learn to fight well. Use empathy with your partner, speak with kindness and offer solutions that involve you making a compromise or doing the heavy lifting. And if this is too difficult for you both, seek help in order to address any deeper issues that may be contributing to your conflict, and to have a professional coach you in how to fight fairer. After all, much better that you end up on the therapist’s couch to solve your relationship issues than your child.