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October 2, 2007 > Should People Argue in Front of Their Kids?

Should People Argue in Front of Their Kids?

By Anne Chan, M.S., MFT

Is it ever okay to argue in front of your kids? I know one couple who never fights in front of their children. On the other end of the spectrum, I know another couple who constantly bicker in front of their children.

Experts have differing opinions on this issue so there is no clear-cut answer. Some research has shown that kids who are exposed to a lot of conflict have more anxieties and behavior problems. This isn't a terribly surprising finding - kids who witness a lot of conflict are likely to feel insecure and fearful.

On the other hand, some believe that kids who are completely shielded from disagreement will not learn how adults resolve differences.

Regardless of which experts are right, it is important to remember the following three points about arguments:
* It is normal to differ and argue with the one you love. Almost all couples fight - it is nearly impossible not to have the occasional disagreement with a person you love. After all, you are two separate individuals and differences are bound to happen.
* Your perception of what constitutes an argument can vary depending on your culture, gender, family history, and personality.
* There are different types of arguments, from all-out wars with words and objects thrown at each other, to differences of opinions stated respectfully.

As both a psychotherapist and a mother, I believe that it is okay to have certain types of disagreements in front of the children. I am not talking about out-of-control fights where words, fists, and objects are thrown wildly. I believe that scary fights and physical or emotional abuse should not be witnessed by the kids. But I do believe that talking about your differences in a respectful, calm, and collaborative manner in front of your kids may be beneficial. If you and your partner discuss issues in a mature, controlled fashion, the kids will likewise learn how to resolve differences and negotiate in a peaceful, respectful manner.

Here are some pointers for how to disagree respectfully with your partner when your child is present:
1. Express appreciation for your spouse and the things he or she does for the family. Making someone feel appreciated and acknowledged goes a long way toward creating harmony between people in the midst of a difficult conversation. If you are stumped for words, just say one sentence every day that begins like this . . . "I appreciate that you . . . "
2. If you are boiling mad and do not have a grip on yourself, it is best to tell your spouse you need to cool down, then walk away and take the time to get a better handle of your emotions. This can also be a valuable lesson for your kids by teaching them how to deal with intense emotions.
3. Give up being right sometimes. People will fight to the death (and destroy everyone else in the process) to prove they are right. A lot of times, they are driven to prove themselves right over the silliest things, e.g. the proper way to load the dishwasher or how to clean the sink. We're not saying that all battles are frivolous, but we are suggesting that you pick your battles wisely. For things that aren't worth fighting about, give up on being right! You'll be surprised how much smoother life becomes when you aren't aggressively pushing to be right.
4. Be polite and respectful. Show your kids that you can disagree with someone, yet be absolutely respectful of them. There should be no name-calling, yelling, or physical outbursts - this is scary for kids because it signals you are out of control. Kids can sense anger and they may interpret your yelling as being directed at them.
5. Show them how an argument is resolved. Show them that two parties can be heard, feel respected, and be accepted. In kids' language, show them that people can have a difference of opinion and still be friends.
6. Show and tell them that having a different opinion means that you can still be united and have common goals.
7. Don't involve the child in your argument. If the argument is about him or her, then save it for later. This is one topic the child does not need to witness.
8. Watch your children if you are having a disagreement with your partner. If they start to look anxious and frightened, or they cry or complain, this is a sign that they are picking up on your argument. Some kids will say "Stop yelling" or even ask "Are you getting a divorce?" It is helpful if you can reassure them with words like, "I understand this is scaring you. Even though Dad and I are not agreeing, we still love each other and we love you."

Being a good role-model is a big part of a parent's job. You can help your kids learn about handling differences and problems by modeling this in your family. What better way to do this by demonstrating respect, control, sensitivity, acceptance, understanding, and love for your partner during a moment of disagreement?

Anne Chan is a licensed psychotherapist and career counselor in Union City. Her specialty is helping people find maximum satisfaction and happiness in their careers and relationships. She can be reached at achan@midlabs.com or 510-744-1781.

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