The Good Fight

Showing Children How to Fight Fair

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By: Kathleen E. Finnegan, MA LPC

What does one say to parents about fighting in front of their kids? "Don't do it?" Then what!? Everyone fights…it's the nature of survival. There is simply no such thing as a conflict free relationship. Yet, many people wander into relationships without a clue about HOW to fight for themselves. Many times we are taught that fighting is dangerous or useless . . . dangerous from the trauma of growing up in an aggressive family, or useless through the frustration of being raised in an over controlling environment. There are even those who claim they don't know how to fight because they never witnessed their parents in conflict.

Psychologists and counselors have long been aware of the ill effects fighting has on children. Verbal conflict with demeaning put downs on the other partner, or sudden outbursts and threats, is toxic to a child's emotional and physical well being. In a six year government study involving more than 2000 families, stress levels of children were measured while watching their parents fight. It was determined they reacted with an increased heart rate, faster breathing and more sweat gland activity. The results, say the statistics? "These children get sick more frequently, tend to become more aggressive, have more depression and anxiety, and don't sleep as well as children from lower conflict homes."

In my own work with families I see children whose continuous exposure to battles desensitizes them to aggression. They consider name calling, put downs, physical fights and cynicism as a normal way of interacting with family members and peers. I also see the wounds go deeply into the minds and hearts of children as they develop a pattern of rescuing others and ignoring their own needs and feelings. Without help, these patterns of either aggression or victim like behavior will continue into adult years and will undermine the individual's efforts to live an empowered life with others.

What about the effects of children who never or rarely witness a disagreement or bickering between parents? At the other end of this spectrum there's the child who does not know how to assert his or herself at all. Often times these are the children who don't know how to stand up to peer pressure, are afraid of conflict and become overly anxious when they enter a new situation. They also come to believe the only time a friendship or group situation can be a happy one is when there is never a fight or disagreement.

When is it a "good fight" for children and parents? When is it productive with a positive outcome? Watching parents argue can be scary for children, but seeing them resolve their difference in positive ways can offer a great deal of security. If children can learn that couples and families can stay together, even through heated times, they will have a much easier time in their lives. As individuals they will be able to assert themselves with their peers, as partners they will know they can disagree about something and continue to love one another. As parents they will be better able to cope with the challenges their children will bring to them.

Conflict happens in the world and is realistic in relationships. It is important to teach children about anger. Children witness violence in life and through the media several times a day. Through witnessing "the good fight" children can learn it's okay to feel angry, but it's not okay to hurt someone. They can recognize angry feelings in themselves and others and learn how to control impulses. They can learn self calming techniques and communicate angry feelings in a positive way. They can see the rewards of problem solving and most importantly, learn how to remove themselves from a violent situation.

Now that the positive effects of "fighting" in front of children have been established, here are some guidelines, or some of the "do's and don'ts" of arguing in front of children:

Do sit down with your partner, during peaceful times, and talk about how you want to handle disagreements.

Do take some time to determine the following five things when you begin to experience hurt or angry feelings:
1. What just happened?
2. How do I feel about it?
3. Do I need to do or say anything about it?
4. If so, what do I need to do or say?
5. Do I need to schedule a time to talk?

Don't argue about the kids or finances. (Children will feel responsible or frightened about being impoverished).

Do express yourself using "I" statements: "I felt scared when you said you were leaving. I thought you might not come back." or "I felt unappreciated when you didn't comment on the dinner I prepared." or, "I feel angry when you follow me around when I say I want some space."

Don't continue the argument when blaming takes over

Do listen to one another and, to prevent making assumptions about what the person meant, clarify to your partner what you heard he or she said before reacting.

Don't continue the fight when you see the children are getting stressed, are trying to break it up directly or, or acting out.

Do check for rapid breathing and take a "time out" when you feel yourself losing control.

Don't end the fight without the children seeing you come to some kind of agreement. (Even if it means continuing the argument at a later time).

Do let the children see you make up.

Don't argue loudly in the same room as infants and toddlers.

What children can learn from conflict is priceless. It will effect them throughout their entire lives and in every aspect that involves relationships. Handled well, it means greater understanding, appreciation and respect for one's self and for others.

When you have years of learned behavior from your family of origin, these concepts will take time to put into practice. Be kind and gentle with yourself in the process of trying and failing. This too is setting a positive example for your children . . . to continue loving oneself through it all. If you are needing more support in your relationships there is help for you. There may be a trusted friend or family member you can confide in. If the problems seem overwhelming contact a professional in your community. You don't have to struggle alone.

Kathleen Finnegan, is a Licensed Professional Counselor. She holds a master of arts degree in transpersonal counseling from John F. Kennedy Univ. Her undergraduate work includes a degree in early childhood education. She worked for Head Start for ten years, and has spent over ten years providing full-time counseling services to children, adolescents, individuals and families. She is a member of Ashland Counseling Associates, a state-licensed mental health facility, Ashland, OR. (541) 488-2926

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