Okay, Folks, Take It Outside

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I sometimes fight when our children, eight and ten, are present. We know we probably shouldn’t argue in front of them but things are sometimes so tense that we can’t stop ourselves (I recently lost my job and we’re facing possible foreclosure). How damaging is it to argue in front of children, and how can we stop?

A: You’re right: you probably shouldn’t argue in front of your children. Some studies have found that kids whose parents fight a lot may become depressed, anxious, or withdrawn. They may also imitate their parents and pick fights with siblings, friends, and even other adults.

That said, it’s completely unrealistic to think that you and your wife should never argue at all. Disagreements are a natural part of even the best relationships. In fact, not having any arguments might be worse than an occasional flare-up. Small quarrels are good for letting off steam—and given your precarious financial situation, you’re producing enough steam to supply your whole neighborhood with electricity. Keeping it all bottled up will eventually lead to a huge explosion. Exposing your kids to small amounts of conflict—along with the same number of make-ups—demonstrates effective problem-solving skills and shows that fighting with someone you love is not the end of the world.

So your challenge isn’t really to step arguing at all, but to find ways to handle your disagreements constructively. One excellent approach is to agree that when you see that an argument is in danger of turning ugly, you’ll stop and give yourselves time to cool off. Come up with a secret word or phrase that either one of you can say that signals it’s time for a break. If you’re able to postpone the argument for a bit, chances are that one of three things will happen: You’ll be able to discuss things more calmly, you’ll realize that the issue wasn’t as big a deal as you thought, or you’ll forget what you were arguing about in the first place.

Of course, despite your best intentions, you’re never going to be able to stop yourselves every time. Here are some things to do when your kids end up with front-row seats:

  • Fight fair. No yelling, no swearing, no personal insults, no threats, no door slamming or vase throwing, and certainly no physical violence of any kind, ever.
  • Damage control. Talk to your children about what they saw. Don’t go into details or lay any blame. Simply tell them that you and mom disagreed and lost your tempers, but now you’ve made up and everything is okay.
  • Don’t pretend things are fine when they aren’t. Your kids are old enough to understand that you’ll all need to make some sacrifices for the good of the family. But don’t panic them—they need to know that no matter what happens, you’ll be there to care for them.
  • Reassure. Children often blame themselves for their parents’ conflicts. Let them know it’s not their fault.
  • Explain. If possible, tell your children how you resolved the issue. For example: “We disagreed on where to spend the holidays, but compromised by going to grandma’s on Christmas Eve and to Aunt Mary’s on Christmas Day.”
  • Have some fun, either as a family or in smaller groups. And make sure your kids see you and their mom are genuinely happy and in love.

Finally, if your fights become more frequent, more aggressive, or if either of you can’t control or manage your temper, get some professional counseling.

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