It’s impossible to tell before having children how stressful life as a parent can be. Burdened with managing finances, work, relationships and the many needs of a child, cracks can begin to show in even the strongest relationship.
Sometimes, those cracks spark arguments. It’s entirely normal to disagree as a couple and to thrash it out. However, from time to time those disagreements may occur in front of children.
How we approach the aftermath of the argument is instrumental in teaching children positive messages about relationships.
How witnessing parental arguments affects children
For the child watching their parents shouting at each other, the experience can be considerably alarming. Their safety net- their parents and home- seems suddenly in disarray and fractured.
Children who witness regular parental rows are shown to suffer from increased anxiety. If the rows become nasty and hate-filled, children may feel distressed and blame themselves. They will also be at risk of picking up the behaviour of not respecting others. Knowing their parents are often at odds leaves children constantly on edge and stressed. One study showed that young children who witnessed regular rows went on to develop behavioural issues and depression in their teenage years.
However, infrequent disagreements between couples is normal, and children can learn important lessons from witnessing how their parents handle conflict in a healthy way.
Modelling how to handle conflict
So, how can we handle arguments in the best way for our children? The key is conflict resolution. Research shows that children who see their parents resolving their differences develop better coping skills. Let your child see you and your partner hugging or being ‘normal’ again after the disagreement. If your child seems quiet or sad having witnessed the argument, comfort them and explain how sometimes people disagree with each other, and must work through their differences.
Showing respect for each other during arguments is also important. Name-calling and verbal cruelty shows a lack of respect, which can become a behaviour the child then takes on. Showing respect for your partner even during conflict is a demonstration of how a healthy relationship deals with difficulty.
Tactics for ‘healthier’ arguments
A great way to approach disagreements is to use ‘I feel’ statements, rather than ‘you’ statements. For example, ‘You never bother to do the washing up’ is more accusatory and likely to be met with a defensive response from your partner. Whereas, ‘I feel stressed because there is always washing up to be done’ expresses your feelings, and encourages a calmer response.
Try to avoid name-calling, dismissing your partner’s feelings, or sarcastic remarks, which are likely to inflame the situation and can affect your child if overheard.
When angry, it’s best to take some time to cool off from the argument before it veers out of control.
How to involve a child in an argument resolution
Not only will your child benefit from learning from your behaviour while ‘making up’, but they’ll also feel comforted to see the disagreement is over.
Both parents can sit with the child and explain that they lost their cool- and even apologise to the other parent for something they said, if necessary. This displays positive relationship behaviours for your child, as well as the importance of apologies and owning up to your mistakes.
If your child is feeling that they are somehow to blame for the argument, reassure them that they aren’t, and acknowledge to them how unsettling it must be to have witnessed their parents arguing.
Above all, ensure that they know they are loved and everything is okay.
Don’t beat yourself up
Relationships are tricky, especially with children and the pressures of modern life thrown into the mix. If an argument has taken place, forgive yourself and move on. It’s never too late to sit down with your child and explain that arguments are part of life, and it’s how we resolve them that matters.
If your relationship is particularly troubled, you may wish to seek out couple’s counselling.
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