Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have always had a loud relationship. There’s never any physical violence, but we do tend to argue a lot. One recent source of disagreements is whether it’s okay to argue in front of our kids, who are 5 and 8. What’s your take?
A: Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t fight in front of your children. Kids may get scared or confused when their parents yell at each other, and some researchers have found that children whose parents argue a lot may become anxious, depressed, distressed, or withdrawn. They may also be more likely to pick fights with their siblings and friends.
That said, in my experience, when it comes to the real world, conventional wisdom is often wrong. Everyone—even those in the best relationships—has occasional disagreements. The truth is that your kids can learn plenty from watching you and your wife disagree. But there’s a right way and a wrong way (actually, there are several wrong ways—more on that below) to do it.
So your goal shouldn’t be to completely stop arguing. Rather, you need to find ways to handle your disagreements constructively. Here are some basic ground rules:
1) No yelling, no swearing, no personal insults, no threats, no door-slamming or vase-throwing, and certainly no physical violence of any kind, ever. Agree that when one of you sees 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.
2) If you do break Rule 1. 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. Be aware that children often blame themselves for their parents’ conflicts. Let them know that it’s not their fault.
3) Pay attention to what happens after the fight. Exposing your kids to small amounts of conflict—along with the same number of make-ups—demonstrates effective problem-solving skills and shows that it’s normal to get angry with people you love, and that it doesn’t mean that the relationship is over. It may also help them learn some negotiation and bargaining skills that will come in handy when trying to convince others of their point of view.
4) Schedule weekly (or more frequent) parent-only meetings to discuss larger issues.
Keep in mind that the way you and your wife argue will affect a lot more than your children. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University followed 156 heterosexual couples since 1989. And by observing the couple’s argument style for 15 minutes, were able to accurately predict the husband’s health problems over the next 20 years. Specifically, they found that men who explode with rage are more likely than not-so-explosive men to develop high blood pressure, chest pain, and other cardiovascular problems. Meanwhile, men who bottle up their emotions are more likely to develop musculoskeletal problems such as muscle stiffness and neck, joint, and back pain.
If you don’t let off a little steam now and then, your anger can come out in more subtle ways: forgetting to pick up groceries on the way home from work, double-booking the kids, not filling up the car with gas, and so on. Over time, those little digs can become the source of huge resentments, which can lead to even more fights.
Previously published on Mr. Dad
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