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Arguing in Front of the Kids

QUESTION: How should parents handle arguing in front of the kids? We have an eight-year-old son and a three-month-old daughter. When my husband and I disagree about something I feel the tension affects our children and I feel guilty. My son often starts to fall apart when we argue. Should my husband and I wait until the kids are asleep to resolve arguments? Any guidance you could offer on this matter would be greatly appreciated!

ANSWER: Conflict is a normal part of family relationships. How arguments are handled however is crucial to the safety children feel in their environment when discussions involving differences in opinions take place. Naturally, there are some discussions which you might want to schedule at a time when you are child-free, simply because you will be better able to concentrate on what you are discussing without interruption. You may also choose to begin a discussion with children present, but agree to talk about the situation at a later specified time because of the need to focus your attention undividedly.

Children need to learn skills for resolving conflict and there is no better way to teach this but to model it in your spousal relationship. When children experience their parents as working things out together, they learn that arguments are safe in the family. It is a healthy family whose members are able to disagree passionately without attacking or devaluing the person with whom they are disagreeing. The tension picked up by children will be experienced as safe if the parents can still feel their love and respect, as well as a genuine desire to understand their partner, whether or not they agree. Hostility and accusations lead to distress in any environment, while "I" statements that are clearly communicated lead towards understanding. Once there is understanding, the potential for genuine compromise is increasingly probable.

It is also important to maintain the generational boundaries between parents and children when discussions do take place with children present. Do not let a child talk for you against a spouse or use a child to try to win the argument! If you are having a discussion with your spouse, reassure your child that Mom and Dad are working out a difference of opinion and he or she does not need to get involved. This should be reinforced by both parents, as it is particularly important for children to hear this from the parent with which they may be attempting to "side". You may even direct your child towards a play activity that is appropriate for them, reinforcing behaviorally that Mom and Dad have the situation under control and they do not need to worry. If doing this does not result in calming your child, then perhaps it would be better to continue your discussion at another time. Your child may need your attention or be particularly vulnerable for reasons other than your disagreement.

However if you see your child repeatedly stopping your arguments, it is important that he or she get the message that this is not their responsibility and that Mom and Dad can handle their own problems. Seeking marital counseling would be appropriate if this situation continues and you have been unable to resolve conflict or handle discussions in a manner that respects your partner. At times when you are in disagreement about the child, however, it is usually most appropriate to resolve problems involving particularly strong differences of opinion outside of the child's presence.

Naturally these rules may change as your children grow. As children become teenagers, if there are healthy guidelines established for respecting each other while disagreeing, the opinion of a teenager may be an interesting additional perspective. As long as there is a consistent history of problem resolution and individuals having the discussion feel safe and not "steamrolled" in the process, conflict can nurture a lively family interaction. However problems that parents need to resolve in their roles as decision makers in the family should never be compromised by the inclusion of others who share their own perspectives on the matter.

Expression of anger without blame or denigration is a key aspect of healthy negotiation. If you can express as well as receive your partner's anger and disappointment when respectfully communicated, the love and appreciation between you will grow. If anger can be managed successfully, love and often passion deepens.

As in anything, extremes should be avoided. Children who grow up in a family that is always expressing conflict which never resolves, suffer from the relentless tension, whether or not the generational boundaries are clear. Compromises must be reached between spouses to ensure the success of the marriage. Likewise, children who grow up never hearing how compromise was reached do not learn the skills they need for communicating in their own future marriages. The "Ozzie and Harriett" approach does not equip children to express themselves or deal with conflict that is part of a healthy intimate relationship.

Remember, too, that there is a difference between having an opinion and being opinionated. To have an opinion allows others to have theirs as well. To be opinionated is to ignore, belittle or otherwise communicate intolerance. Opinionated people rarely maintain intimate and satisfying relationships. Being capable of having discussions about topics that are charged is based on communication and problem solving skills that must be learned for people to have and maintain loving relationships. When children can learn these skills in their own families, they become better equipped to create and maintain their own relationships.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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