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The Dangers of Arguing in Front of Your Kids

Arguing in front of the kids can be harmful to them. Find out more.
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You know that sick feeling that comes over you when you and your husband are shouting angrily at each other -- and then you look up and see your child standing wide-eyed in the doorway?

If you're like me, you can remember just how upset you felt when you heard your own parents argue. By the time we were preteens, my sister and I had suggested to my parents that they get divorced if they couldn't get along any better. They never did anything of the kind, so I have to conclude it bothered us more than it bothered them.

What is the effect of parental arguments on the children who overhear them? Here are the insights of Dr. John W. Jacobs, M.D., author of "All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage," and Dr. Carol Ummel Lindquist, Ph.D., author of "Happily Married With Kids" and happilymarriedwithkids.com.

Is Arguing in Front of the Kids Always Harmful?
An occasional disagreement -- call it a "heated negotiation" -- during which you treat each other with respect and move into problem-solving, say therapists, is actually a good thing for kids. It's considered a form of role modeling. But arguments in which you repeat the same points over and over, or call each other names -- where you are venting resentments rather than solving problems -- have no up side for the children. "If you bully one another, your kids learn to bully others," Lindquist warns. "And they will turn that treatment right back on you once they are teenagers."

Do Parental Fights Have a Negative Influence on Kids?
"Children start by being frightened by their parents arguing," says Jacobs. "Later, they become disgusted. 'How can they live like this?' they wonder. Eventually, they develop a fear of being similarly trapped, and as adults may have the tendency to bail out of relationships early." Jacobs says that while much is written about the damage caused by divorce, the damage is even worse for children whose parents stay in unhappy, bitter, explosive marriages.

What Can Parents Do to Minimize Any Trauma?
If kids witness a bad argument, don't sweep it under the rug, says Lindquist, go ahead and apologize to them. Reassure them that you love each other. Mention specifically, in age-appropriate terms, how you would have liked to talk about the conflict. For example: "I'm sorry Daddy and I were arguing last night. We both feel bad when we say bad words. We can work things out better when we don't interrupt each other and use soft voices."

But you can only get away with this so many times, says Jacobs. After a while, the words ring false. If you can't tone it down, get some help.

How to Keep Arguments Under Control

  • Argue as though the neighbors are able to hear you, says Lindquist. No name-calling, no foul language, no raised voices.

  • Actively use your listening skills.

  • Give direct eye contact and do nothing else while your spouse is talking. Look riveted. Nod your head, no matter what they are saying.

  • Repeat what the person has said. Use as many of the same words as possible.

  • Sympathize. Let the other person know you understand that they are feeling bad, even if they are blaming you for the problem.

  • Ask, "Is there anything more you want to tell me?" Give your partner a chance to discover deeper feelings, and to shift to a calmer, more neutral place.

If you find yourself getting carried away, advises Jacobs, call a time-out. Stop right there and agree to talk later. Then make a time to sit down and have a real discussion about what is bothering you -- the bigger issues of your life and your marriage.

And do it when your children do not have to be an audience.


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