It’s become conventional parental wisdom not to fight in front of the children, but some psychologists don’t believe in this blanket statement. In fact, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, there are some who say parents should fight in front of their kids (within means, of course) in order to model proper conflict resolution.
"Kids are going to have disagreements with their friends, their peers, co-workers," says Patrick Davies, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. "If they don't witness disagreements and how they are handled in constructive ways, they are not well-equipped to go out into the world and address inevitable conflict."
Dr. Davies points to research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 2009. It was a study of 235 families with kids ages 5 to 7, and it found that “constructive marital conflict” helps children with healthy development of their problem solving and coping skills, and even their overall happiness.
Others point to research that links unhealthy marital conflict to children with a greater risk of anxiety disorders, depression, and behavior problems. In fact, there was a study in the journal Psychological Science that found that these problems can begin much earlier than we thought, as babies who were asleep were still sensitive to conflict.
President of the American Academy of Pediatrics Thomas McInerny has said, "If [parents] are going to have disagreements, they should do that in private as much as possible.” He went on to say, "It is the rare instance when [couples] can keep it rational and keep it calm."
Thankfully, the article notes that there are tactics you can take to prevent having a full-on blowout in front of your kids. Child psychologist and co-director of the early childhood clinical service at the Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, Kirsten Cullen Sharma, suggests that parents set an anger cutoff point for arguments. She asks her patients to define a number on an anger scale of one to 10 in which they know they should cut the fight off, lest it get to the point where one or the other is yelling, cursing, or generally feeling out of control.
Dr. Davies also suggests that parents take cues from their children. A crying child is an obvious sign that the fight needs to stop, while some less obvious signs need to be cued into as well. Some teens will roll their eyes, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less painful. And some kids might simply freeze, which Dr. Davies says is a clear sign that the child feels he or she is in danger. Other kids might look sullen or depressed and we, as parents, need to become hyper-aware of these reactions. Another inappropriate reaction is a child who tries to intervene. Once this happens, the argument needs to cease immediately.
As you can guess, researchers agree that this is a complicated subject, and that there may be no firm correct answer. Where do you stand on arguing in front of your children?