As much as we might wish to avoid it, arguing with our spouses in front of our children happens.
This does not mean we are bad parents. In fact, if we can remain calm and respectful during a disagreement, it can even be healthy for children to witness us work through a touchy subject—especially when there is a resolution on the other side.
When couples have healthy rules of engagement for conflicts, children are able to form healthy conflict resolution models for themselves.
Healthy conflict involves:
- Active listening
- Speaking about your experience (using "I statements") while avoiding blame.
- Striving for both people to get their needs met, and
- Apologizing when that is warranted.
If you can achieve some (or sometimes all) of this, you are a conflict resolution rock star.
But what happens when parents get into a fight they wish their children hadn't seen?
Our thought is this ...
First, it happens.
Assuming no one was abusive, learn from it, and move on. (And if someone was abusive, seek intervention immediately.)
Second, wrap words around it.
Often, when parents have a nasty fight in front of their children, they try to brush it under the rug. They cross their fingers and hope that their children do not bring it up.
After the fight, they return to normal, as though nothing has happened.
If the children are silent on the matter, the parents exhale a sigh of relief, as though silence must mean the children were not impacted.
But remember, your children's paradigms are being formed each and every day. What you say and do (and don't say and do) in front of your children matters—even if they don't act like it does.
If you and your spouse had an argument in front of your child, address it with your child as soon as you can calmly do so. This allows you to help shift your child’s mind toward a healthier paradigm.
Try something like this...
“I am sorry that we had that fight—especially in front of you. I shouldn’t have raised my voice like that, and to be honest, I’m a little bit embarrassed that I did. I want you to know that we worked everything out [if you did]. It is important to me that I stay calm and collected during arguments, but sometimes my emotions get the best of me. In those cases, it’s important to me that I own my mistake and apologize. I am sorry.
"I also want you to know that you can ask me any questions you have about the argument and what you heard. There are some things that I consider private, and I might not tell you, but I will try to be as honest as possible, and I won’t get mad at anything you ask.”
Your child may or may not have questions, and some of them might make you uncomfortable. It’s never fun to answer questions like, “Are you getting divorced
Be prepared with answers that encourage your child to feel safe, loved, and secure—no matter the situation.
And while it isn’t fun to answer those questions, it’s much better to know the questions that are on your child’s mind than to not know. It is much better to let your child know that they can ask those questions than to pretend like nothing is wrong.
When you pretend like nothing is wrong, your children feel confused about the way the world operates. They wonder why the emotions they are experiencing and the fight they witnessed is being ignored by the people most important to them. Your children begin to think that something must be wrong with them that they are so upset and you are not.
Wrapping words around it lets them know that they can trust themselves—that what they witnessed was indeed upsetting and not okay.
Likewise, address tension in the household, even if it is silent tension.
Oftentimes, parents resolve not to argue in front of their children, but they are clearly upset with each other. Their behavior is “off,” and their kids can pick up on it.
Children likely find it uncomfortable, and their minds start racing with questions, things like: "Am I crazy, or do my parents seem to hate each other? Is everything okay? Are they getting divorced? Why isn’t anyone talking about it? If they aren’t talking about it, I better not talk about it either."
Wrap words around this, too, even if you don’t what the resolution will be. Try saying something like this...
“Hey, I want you to know that I recognize that things have been tense around here for a while. The truth is that your parents are having a hard time sorting out a few obstacles.
"I would rather not talk about the specifics until I feel a little more calm, but I do want to let you know that we will figure it out [if you believe that you will], and that we both love each other [if you do] and we both love you. Everything will return to normal soon.
"You can ask me questions, and I’ll try to answer as many as I can. I won’t be able to answer all of them, but I will follow up with you in a day or two to let you know where things stand.”
When you acknowledge a situation and wrap words around it for your child, you communicate that your children can trust their own inner wisdom, and they can trust you to accurately communicate the reality of the world. And this helps children build resilience.
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