Many parents would like to think that it’s best to raise their children in a home that is relatively free of conflict. For married couples, this could mean not fighting, nor arguing intensely in front of their children. After all, no child wants to see his or her parents engage in a bitter argument. It’s not only stressful, but also studies have shown that seeing too much marital conflict can be traumatic make a child more prone to anxiety and behavior disorders. There are however, other studies have shown that arguing with your spouse in front of your children isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One such study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 2009 found that children between the ages of five and seven who witnessed constructive marital conflict between their parents tend to develop better conflict resolution and problem solving skills as they mature, and in addition may be happier overall. The key of course is that these children’s parents engage in “constructive marital conflict.”
Constructive conflict means that both parents remain civil towards each other and don’t lose their temper or engage in name-calling or yelling. They respectfully find a resolution to their conflict, which in turn teaches their children to do the same thing when they are inevitably faced with conflict with their siblings and their friends. Although the study shows that having an argument with your spouse in front of your children may not necessarily be a bad thing, there is still some disagreement on how conflict should be handled. Some couples simply allow their arguments to become too heated and should probably keep their conflicts behind closed doors and away from their children whenever possible.
Unfortunately, some arguments are bound to take place in front of children despite their parents’ best efforts. One good way to know when it’s safe to have a disagreement in front of children is for each parent to agree in advance on an “anger cutoff” point. If anger can be rated on a scale of one to ten, then different people will lose their temper at different points on the scale. Some people may fly off the handle when their anger reaches a five, while others will be perfectly calm until their anger reaches an eight. It’s important that each parent know their trigger point and when they are near that point and about to “lose it”, they take the conflict away from their children.
Another good indicator that your marital conflict is getting too much for your children is to observe their reaction to the argument. Generally speaking, if your child starts to cry or otherwise becomes agitated, it’s time to take your argument behind closed doors. It may be time to check in with your child about their perceptions regarding their parents and deal directly with their fear and anxiety. Parents, teachers and other caregivers should always remember that children learn a lot from observing adults interact with each other. Just as they can learn healthy conflict resolution skills by watching their parents, they can also learn some really unhealthy behaviors if they see their parents or other adults express their anger in an unhealthy way.
There are many constructive approaches to constructively managing conflict and for constructive communication within relationship. Couples can learn a variety of strategies for clear, direct and fair communicating which promotes understanding, brings people together and reduces anger. Active listening techniques can be learned practiced and incorporated into everyday communication. With ongoing practice these become automatic and are “at ready” to help you to keep the lid on during stressful times. Similarly, strategies such as those taught to kids through our BeCool curriculum can help one avoid turning a problem they can handle into one they can’t because of anger escalation or passive aggression. You and your students can learn cool and constructive ways to deal with conflict. This is a good thing that can often cement and deepen relationships.
i) This article was inspired by the Wall Street Journal’s online article, “The Family That Fights Together” by Andrea Petersen, accessed 9/3/13
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