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
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
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
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
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