There can’t be many parents in the land who don’t have the odd argument in front
of the children. Parents who are tired and over-subscribed can find it hard not to
let off steam, but how does this affect the kids? And how can we achieve damage limitation?
writes Kate Hilpern
‘Oh no, you haven’t put the rubbish out...again!’ ‘Why is there
only juice on the table for the kids’ breakfast? Surely you realise they have to
Most of us argue with our partners in the presence of little ears once in a while.
It’s impossible to agree all the time. But parental conflict can damage children’s
mental health and life chances, according to new research from the Early Intervention
in collaboration with the University of Sussex. And that holds true whether parents
are together or separated.
Parents embroiled in hostile and distressed relationships are typically more hostile
and aggressive towards their children and less responsive to their needs, the research
found. In turn, some children may become more aggressive and hostile themselves,
while others can develop low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
As if that’s not enough, witnessing inter-parental conflict on an ongoing basis can
reduce a child’s academic performance, limit the development of their social and
emotional skills and even their ability to form positive relationships themselves.
‘Fighting in front of the kids affects them from the day they are born – and some
might argue even before that because maternal anxiety can affect the unborn baby
too,’ says psychologist Emma Citron.
Some studies have shown that blood pressure rises in infants when
parents argue within earshot. While babies and toddlers might not
understand the words, we know that they do tune into our tone and body language and
pick up on antagonism.
By the time children are at school, feelings of insecurity and uncertainty can kick
in whenever they hear their mum and dad arguing. ‘With 42 per cent of marriages now
ending in divorce, most school-age children have at least one friend whose parents
aren’t together, so the threat of you splitting up can also be on their radar,’ says
‘Nobody is suggesting you should never disagree – that’s unrealistic – but it’s how
you do it that’s critical,’ she adds. ‘Some disagreements are respectful and fairly
amicable – a difference in opinion about politics, for example. But others get nasty
and personal and can include swear words and name calling. This is where it gets
dangerous because we know that children of any age tend to self blame. They take
on inappropriate self-responsibility, which is emotionally burdensome and can have
a long term impact.’
I WANT THINGS TO CHANGE!
Laura lives with husband Chris and their two children, aged one and three, in Merseyside
‘Chris and I have always had quick tempers and a volatile relationship. Rather than
seeing this as negative, I used to think it was a good thing. Unlike couples who
either hold grudges, or seem to feel constantly irritated by each other, I would
pride myself on the fact that we could get it all out in the open with a quick row
and then move on.
And how boring never to row – the making up is the best bit! We are both passionate
people and I’ve always thought a hot temper is the flip side of that.
But now that we have children, I want things to change. Our elder child hates it
when we argue because our rows always involve shouting and strong accusations. She
often complains of a tummy ache if we have cross words. Although there are no specific
signs with the younger one, I do wonder how the rows are affecting her.
Things got bad a few months ago – I think because the tiredness and daily grind of
parenting adds to stress levels. I decided to get some counselling to help with the
arguments, and also to address some issues from my past that I wanted to work through.
It’s helped me realise why certain things wind me up and I’ve been given some cognitive
behavioural therapy that I use as a kind of mental tool box to help me stop things
escalating when I start to see red.
My partner is trying to curb his temper in his own way too and although we sometimes
slip up, we’re much better than we used to be.’
Unresolved arguments are the worst, reveals the Early Intervention
Foundation research. This is backed up by a study from the University of Notre Dame
which found that children who saw a staged conflict with resolution remained calm,
whereas those who
were allowed to see just a portion of the argument – without the resolution – were
negatively affected. These children shouted, got angry or hit a pillow.
But hold fire before the guilt sets in about having had a go at your
partner for not doing the laundry last week. Co-author of the parenting book Natureshock
Po Bronson says he doesn’t avoid disputes with his wife in front of his kids. Instead,
he uses such incidents as ‘teachable moments’ to show that even though they may disagree,
both parents still love each other and are not about to divorce.
Observing quarrels, he believes, can teach children we’re not perfect, and show that
it’s ok to tell someone if they upset you or made you angry, which can build confidence
skills. Arguments that are resolved can also teach youngsters valuable lessons about
how to work things out reasonably. In the Notre Dame study, researchers found that
when actors made efforts to problem solve, the children were not disturbed.
The problem is that you never really know how arguments are going to end up. Even
if we know what we want to say and how we want to resolve the situation, there’s
no way of guessing how the other person will react. ‘And when arguments escalate,
even with the best will in the world, we’re normally led by our emotions rather than
logic – and emotions are unpredictable,’ says
psychologist Dr Abigael San.
‘When we let ourselves become angry, we become totally selfish –
giving ourselves over to releasing all our negative emotions without a thought for
anyone around us,’ says psychologist Linda Blair. ‘If we wanted to solve the problem
rationally, we wouldn’t be arguing in the first place.
’ She believes that all arguing does is to teach children that their parents can’t
control their emotions, or that they don’t care if their negativity upsets others
around them. This can make children feel anxious and unimportant. It also sends a
message to children that
it’s ok to be completely impulsive with your emotions, rather than exercising self-control
That also goes for parents arguing with others within the family, such as their children,
siblings or parents, says Linda Blair These arguments don’t carry the same emotional
risks as parental rows. But the bottom line is that as parents we should be role
Rowing in the right way
It would be a very unusual family where the children never saw their parents rowing!
When you feel something is brewing, try these tips:
•Try to keep a lid on your anger, recommends Dr San. ‘Make a conscious effort to
limit how much you raise your voice. If you can, stop the conversation and set time
aside to discuss the issue when the children aren’t around.’
•Recognise the physiological signals that you’re losing control – is your stomach
churning? Are you only focusing on one negative thing irrationally? Take a deep breath,
get a glass of water or walk out of the room and pick up the conversation when you’re
•Never assume your kids aren’t listening, advises Dr San. Even if they’re having
their own conversation or appear to be immersed in play, the emotional cogs are turning.
If they cover their ears, ask you to stop, or run out of the room, that’s a very
clear signal to call a halt. But just because those things don’t happen doesn’t mean
they’re not being affected.
•Remember that keeping schtum is different from a stony silence, explains Dr San.
‘A stony silence can be every bit as toxic as a row. I’ve seen people coming into
therapy who have learned to keep all their feelings squashed inside even when they’re
upset because that’s all they ever saw their parents do – then one day it all explodes.’
•The biggest no-no is name-calling says Emma Citron who suggests that if you are
angry, you should try to focus on the behaviour, not the person. ‘Address one topic
at a time and avoid words like “always” and “never” which are most likely unfair
and will certainly antagonise. Definitely don’t try to win an argument.’
•Make time as a couple to regularly communicate about things before they escalate.
Above all, make sure that if you do row, your child knows at the end: ‘It’s ok. Mummy
and Daddy love each other very much and we’ve worked this out.’