Fighting In Front Of Your Children - Not Such A Bad Thing?

14/08/2014 16:55 | Updated 22 May 2015

Shut up

Fighting in front of the kids can only be a bad thing, right?

Wrong, say a growing number of child psychologists.

While most people assume that children suffer when they see their parents argue, these childcare experts believe it can be a good thing for them to witness, provided the disagreement is resolved in the right way.

So next time you're squabbling over who is going to do the washing up or why you are left feeling your partner never listens to you, you may want to think twice before stopping in your tracks because you realise the kids are watching.

The theory is that observing quarrels can teach children that we're not perfect, as well as highlighting the fact that it's OK to tell someone if they upset you, which can help build confidence and assertiveness skills. In addition, it can teach youngsters valuable lessons about how to work things out reasonably.

Research backs this up. One study from the University of Notre Dame set up a home-like environment with cameras and hired actors to play out arguments. Some 500 children aged 5-18 observed different scenarios of these clashing parents over the course of 20 years, and their reactions were monitored. The researchers even took saliva samples to test levels of cortisol, the primary hormone produced by stress.

Critically, the researchers found that when actors played out conflict where the resolution was positive, the children learned from the experience.

"Children actually are not disturbed by it if there are sincere efforts to problem-solve," explains Mark Cummings, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and the lead researcher on the study. "They actually are happy about it, which surprised us."

In one experiment, children who saw a staged conflict along with the resolution remained calm, but those who were allowed to see just a portion of the argument - without the resolution - were negatively affected. They shouted, got angry or hit a pillow.

One person who isn't at all surprised by the findings is Po Bronson, co-author of the parenting book Nurtureshock. Indeed, he says he does not avoid disputes with his wife in front of his two kids to show that even though he and his wife may disagree, they still love each other.

If you wait to resolve the dispute later on, it can leave the kids really stressed, he says. If, instead, you work it out in front of them, the children are left feeling more secure and confident, argues Bronson, who encourages parents to see such incidents as "teachable moments". As for those rows where privacy is genuinely required to work it out, at least be sure to tell the children afterwards how it was resolved, he says.

But child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer says we need to get real and remember that parents don't always speak reasonably during rows. "I totally accept that if everything happens behind closed doors and children never see any kind of arguing between their parents, then you're not preparing them for real life. They need to know bad things happen and that disagreements can teach valuable negotiation skills, among other things," she says.

But, she points out, even if you intend to manage the discord in a rational and calm way, it doesn't always work out like that. What's more, even with the best intentions, you simply don't always find a mutually satisfactory resolution. Add to this the fact that children may not understand all the nuances of what's behind an adult argument, and you can see how they may learn nothing at all and instead be left feeling confused and sad.

"It can really screw kids up if they hear a lot of mud flinging or see Mummy crying because Daddy has upset her again," says Dr Gummer.

"It can also confuse them if you are friendly one minute and the next, you're calling each other names. In any case, sometimes it is better for everyone to leave an argument and come back to the topic later when everyone has calmed down a bit, so I particularly disagree that parents should make a concerted effort to finish every argument they start in front of the children."

With studies showing that children as young as a year old can be very sensitive to marital conflict, this really matters, says Wendy Evans, spokesperson for Family Lives.

"The truth is, you never really know how arguments are going to end up. Even if we know what we want to say, there's no way of guessing how the other person will react. There's also a risk that children could misunderstand something or be subjected to hearing things that alarm or scare them. This is particularly worrying when you think that arguments can be emotional and therefore escalate quickly," she says.

Evans isn't convinced that children who don't see their parents argue are any less prepared for adulthood. "They are subjected to enough arguing on the media and online, so I think it's pretty unlikely they'll enter adulthood with rose tinted spectacles."

But others remains adamant, insisting that if children see grown-ups fighting and making up, those children learn that disagreements can be stepping stones to solutions.

With research showing that a typical married couple has about eight squabbles a day – and that children witness their parents' arguments around 45Slideshow-84766%


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