It's inevitable that you'll argue with your husband at some point (all right, many points)-and sometimes, the kids will catch on that Mom and Dad are mad at each other. But these fights don't have to scare or scar your little ones. In fact, some fights can be invaluable teaching tools. Read on for nine things to keep in mind when arguments break out, from which topics are and aren't okay for tiny ears to hear to how to ensure your children learn from your disagreements.
1. Fight fair.
This means no name-calling, no screaming and no threats. "Focus on the content of the fight," suggests Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. "No-holds-barred arguing forces kids to take on responsibility that doesn't belong to them-to keep you two from fighting. It sets a bad example of what marriage is and may affect their ability to keep relationships going." According to Michael Osit, EdD, a clinical psychologist who works with families, it's important that your children don't see out-of-control rage. "They should understand that parents can get mad at each other and still love each other," he says.
2. Avoid adult topics.
Many conversations are fine to have in front of children. Certain subjects, though, should be off-limits. An obvious one: your sex life, says Dr. Tessina. A not-so-apparent one: If you're annoyed that your husband drank too much after a night out with his buddies, speak about that privately. "The kids shouldn't know one of you has a hangover. They don't know how to interpret adult things, so don't expose them to something they're not ready to understand," says Dr. Tessina. And you shouldn't talk badly about other family members, immediate or extended. "Discussions about particular people, like your mother-in-law, might get repeated to that person. Or the kids might start reacting oddly to that person," she warns.
3. Never argue about decisions concerning the kids.
You may occasionally disagree over rules for your children, but work that out behind closed doors. Otherwise, "the parent who isn't siding with the child could seem like the bad guy. And that can make him or her a less effective parent because their authority is being circumvented," says Dr. Osit. But there's a bigger issue: When children see they can divide and conquer their parents, they may get an inflated idea of their role. "If they start expecting to get what they want all the time, then they don't know their place as a child. They'll think they have authority in other areas of the family," explains Dr. Osit.
4. Solve a problem before it escalates.
Disagreements happen, but there's always a way to avoid fighting, according to Robert Epstein, PhD, research psychologist, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today and founder of MyParentingSkills.com. "Any conflict can be resolved peacefully and constructively." For example, if you and your spouse are arguing about who should do the dishes, Dr. Espstein recommends discussing who did the dishes last time or who cooked dinner. Worst case scenario? Flip a coin. "That way, your child is cheering. You're resolving things positively," he says.
5. Make sure they hear you resolve the conflict.
While Dr. Osit recommends avoiding ongoing fights in front of the kids, hashing out disagreements that are quickly solvable can benefit them. "It's good for children to hear that your opinions differ on, say, what TV show to watch or where to go out for dinner," he says. These are opportunities to model how you'd want your kids to fight: with a goal of reaching a compromise, not winning. "They can learn to negotiate by observing you," says Dr. Tessina. "They also learn to problem-solve, listen to things they may not agree with, consider each other's wants and needs and stick with a discussion until a solution is reached," says Dr. Tessina. Through conflict-and conflict resolution-you're teaching them how to manage their own lives with classmates at school, siblings at home and eventually, colleagues at work.
6. Follow up separately afterwards.
If you and your partner have a big blowout in front of the kids, check in with them later to let them know everything's okay. "First tell them, 'I'm sorry we argued in front of you. We shouldn't have done that,'" recommends Dr. Osit. And it's worse if you and your husband sit down with your children at the same time. "That may be too formal, so let them know separately and casually that the issue's been resolved." This is crucial because your child's angst over conflict at home could lead to conflicts outside of it. "Kids tend to replay family issues through other relationships. They could transfer parental conflicts onto their siblings, peers and teachers," says Dr. Osit. "Or they can act out or become depressed."
7. Never make them take sides.
Not only do you want to avoid arguing about your kids in front of them, but you should never ask them to choose which parent they agree with, even on the smallest matters. "Don't ask them to vote for one parent over the other," says Linda Nielsen, EdD, educational and adolescent psychologist at Wake Forest University and author of Between Fathers and Daughters. "They can sit there and observe, but what does damage, even if the issue itself is trivial, is putting kids in the middle." If they get to settle an argument by siding with a parent, it can give them a false sense of power over the family. Plus, they can feel guilty about picking one parent over the other. "It's worse than arguing over something important in their presence."
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8. Blow off steam together after a fight.
Losing your cool or being impatient or irrational with someone you love is a result of stress. "If we lose control, we're stressed, and we're probably stressed for a few minutes after a fight-and so are our children," says Dr. Epstein. "So find a way to help yourself and your children manage that stress." Dr. Epstein has taught his six-year-old daughter breathing techniques. "She 'blows things.' It's Lamaze-type breathing. If we think she needs more, we'll say, 'Blow our heads off!' She'll blow as hard as she can, we'll throw our heads back and she'll start to laugh," he says. "Bottom line: Some things go wrong and sometimes we don't feel good, but there are ways to make ourselves feel better." Other suggestions: Go for a walk or swim or hit up the dollar store for good, cheap fun. These can help you move past the fight, says Dr. Epstein.
9. Don't try to be perfect.
If you give your children the impression that their family is conflict-free, then they won't be prepared to handle conflict in the outside world. According to Dr. Nielsen, some cultures don't really engage in verbal arguments. But kids from cultures where there is some arguing tend to be less stressed about it in life because they know it's not the end of the world. "Some families hurt their kids' immune systems by over-cleaning. Shielding them from fights does a similar thing," says Dr. Nielsen. "You've got to sling a little dirt sometimes and let them build up immunity to that." So as long as you play by the rules, fighting in front of your children can give them the tools they need to cope with conflict in healthy ways.