Fighting in the bedroom late at night, whispering or changing the subject when your child walks in the room – or any other steps you take to shield him or her from conflict – paints a pretty picture of an unrealistic relationship.
The truth is, parents fight. We aren’t always going to see eye-to-eye with our partner, but it’s OK to do some arguing in front of kids – and, ultimately, come to a resolution together too – research finds.
According to a two-year study of 416 families in the United States, when parents showed both warmth and empathy towards one another during disagreements, their children felt a sense of security that their family would be OK.
That same study, which was originally published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2017 and recently reexamined in the Wall Street Journal, found that middle schoolers had better coping skills if their parents solved disagreements in ways that satisfied both parties.
“It’s really important for parents to understand that how they do conflict is so important to how their kids see relationships, in general,” says Dr. Terri Orbuch, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great and professor at Oakland University in Rochester.
“When they don’t see any tension or any negativity, I think they grow up and think that all relationships that are healthy and happy don’t have conflict.”
But that’s not the case. Conflict is inevitable, and when children don’t see it happen or witness the resolution, it can impact their adult relationships.
“Those kids grow up and then they have their first disagreement and they run and get divorced,” Orbuch says.
They don’t have the tools to deal with conflict – many of which they should have gained from witnessing how their parents handle disagreements.
So, how can you “do” conflict – and do it well enough to set an example for your child?
Tips for healthy disagreements
When it comes to parental conflict, there is a right way to do it – and it really does comes down to how you disagree and resolve that argument.
“Having disagreements in front of your kids is good so that they know that happens, but that you resolve that – and that’s the big theme,” Orbuch says.
Resolution is key, but it’s just one of many steps to take.
Orbuch offers these seven steps for parents.
1. Understand that conflict is inevitable.
Realistically, all relationships have conflict, she says, and it doesn’t predict unhappiness or divorce. “If you think it is not realistic or it means something negative, then that’s going to appear in front of your children or you’re going to try to hush things up or you’re only going to want to do conflict in the bedroom at night or in the bathroom – and that makes no sense,” Orbuch says.
2. Remain calm.
It’s easy to get emotional during a disagreement, but it’s important to avoid getting too worked up. “Research shows that when we are irritated and upset, it can do something to our brain waves that affects how we talk, what we say and what we do,” Orbuch says. Step back and pause or count to five. Don’t storm out of the house either, she suggests.
3. Use ‘I’ statements.
Avoid saying things like “you should be ashamed of yourself” or “you can’t say that.” These statements put people on the defensive and raise the anger level. Instead, take responsibility for your own feelings. “When we say ‘I,’ it automatically comes off more calm,” she says.
4. Be respectful.
No name-calling or yelling.
5. Validate your partner’s feelings.
You don’t have to agree with them, but don’t dismiss their feelings either. Instead, say you understand their perspective.
It’s important for kids to see that you can say “I’m sorry” – and be sincere in your apology, she says. Parents might want to hug at the end, too, so kids can see that affirmation.
7. Address the argument with your child.
“Sometime after, it can be a day or two, talk to your kids about what went on,” Orbuch says. Run them through the disagreement and then ask them if they have any questions about it. Own your mistakes with your child, she adds.
Remember that timing can impact the outcome of a disagreement.
“Timing is everything, so don’t be unaware of timing,” she says. “People are hungry, people are tired, people have had a long day,” so avoid times when your partner could be more irritable as a result of one of those factors.
Don’t mind-read or assume you know what’s in your partner’s head, either. And always avoid “kitchen sinking,” which involves bringing everything up into one disagreement or conversation at once. Instead, Orbuch says, stick to one issue at a time.