How To Do Damage Control When You Fight In Front of Your Kid

"Yesterday my husband and I had an argument at dinner time in front of the kids. My four year old daughter yelled at us to ‘Be quiet!’ … My two year old had a tough time going to bed, which is unusual for him. Could that have had to do with mommy and daddy arguing?”

iStock/Used with PermissionSource: iStock/Used with Permission

In honor of Valentines Day next week, my next three posts are about the intersection between being a parent and being a couple -- specifically, how to work through conflicts when you're in front of your children.

Conflict is part of every human relationship. If we live with children, those conflicts will sometimes come up in front of the kids. Which raises some important questions.

Does it hurt your child to see you and your partner fight?

In the past, most experts reassured parents that there’s no harm in children seeing them fight, as long as the kids also see the parents make up afterwards. However, recent developments in neurological research challenge this view. Not surprisingly, it turns out that when children hear angry yelling, their stress hormones shoot up. In fact, even a sleeping infant registers loud, angry voices and experiences a rush of stress chemicals that takes some time to diminish.

Don't raise a spoiled kid. Keep this thought in mind: Every child is a treasure, but no child is the center of the universe. Teach him accordingly.

So the research confirms what any child can tell you, which is that it’s frightening when adults yell at each other. After all, parents are the child’s source of security. When parents seem out of control, the world becomes a scary place.

This stress response can make children anxious long afterward, including making it difficult for kids to fall asleep, because the stress hormones can stay in the child’s body for hours. Since kids can’t turn to the arguing adults for comfort, they stuff their fear, and it pops out in anxiety, defiance or misbehavior.

Maybe worst of all, when adults yell at each other, it gives children the message that when humans have disagreements, yelling is the “grown up” way to handle them.

So is it ever good for parents to disagree in front of kids?

Yes! It's terrific for children to see adults disagree with each other respectfully, and ask for what they need without making the other person wrong. In other words, children benefit from seeing healthy disagreements. Even when tempers get a little hot, if you can resolve things quickly and your children see you repair and reconnect, you're modeling the resilience of relationships.

Repeat: I am not a short-order cook. "It's a child's job to learn to eat what the parents eat," says Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and the author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Instead of the all-or-nothing scenario, offer a variety of foods at mealtime: the main course, plus rice or pasta, a fruit or vegetable, and milk. This way, your child can eat just the pasta and the peas and get protein from the milk. "What a child eats over the course of a day or a week is more important than a balanced meal at one sitting," says Stephen Daniels, the chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in Aurora.

So by all means, go ahead and work through differences that come up with your partner in front of your kids. But remember that as soon as your disagreement disintegrates into disrespect or yelling, you're way out of the healthy zone. It's a great idea to have a discussion about this in advance, and agree that whenever either of you starts to get triggered during a discussion, you'll put off the fight until you're behind closed doors. Choose a code word or phrase that signals "Got it; I love you but this is getting too hot to handle with the kids here; Let's discuss this later."

In those cases, be sure to summon up your sense of humor as soon as things start to get heated, and close the "public" phase of your discussion with a hug, so your child can relax, knowing that no matter how difficult the discussion, the adults are still committed to working things out positively.

What if you’ve fought with your partner in front of your child

...and you wouldn't exactly call the things you said respectful?

Don’t panic. The risk factor for the child comes from repeated experiences.

Try this experiment: For the next few days, consider your interactions with your partner through your child's eyes.

  • Does the tone stay respectful even when you disagree?
  • Do voices stay at a level tone?
  • Do you both find a way to express your wants and needs without "attacking" each other?
  • Is the tone in your home generally one of warmth and support?
  • Does your child see daily ample evidence of emotional generosity on both sides?
  • Do you make a point of "making up" in front of your child?
  • Are there at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction?

Research shows that these practices are good for your relationship. And they model healthy connection and disagreement for your child to see and learn from.

Keep sunblock next to your kid's toothpaste. Apply it every day as part of the morning routine. It'll become as natural as brushing her teeth.