It’s a fact that how parents disagree, express disappointment, and show anger will impact how children manage their own conflicts and emotions. The ability to work through problems, confront others when needed, and hold on to boundaries while respecting the relationship takes practice and committed intention.
What’s going on when parents argue?
- Parents may be in the habit of defending their positions by butting heads.
- Parents may not feel respected in the relationship and are too angry to work together.
- Parents may be faced with difficult circumstances (such as financial stress) and may need objective, professional consultation.
- Parents may be lacking effective communication skills. How does chronic arguing affect your children?
- Children report they worry when their parents argue. Younger children become afraid and distraught while older children become anxious and assume parents are headed for divorce.
- Children don’t usually address these worries with their parents, believing that not talking about it will help their parents forget about the issues.
- Sometimes children may have tantrums, try to be the peacemaker, start fights, begin frequent whining, want to stay home from school to be sure everyone is okay, or develop headaches and stomachaches.
- Children stay emotionally hypervigilant and feel helpless when they suspect parent instability.
How can parents model disagreement with respect?
- Tell your partner you would like to postpone the discussion until you can get your emotions under control. Later move to a private space.
- Listen to the other person’s view.
- Make eye contact, keeping facial expression neutral.
- State your own position calmly using I messages, such as, “I believe that…”
- Offer to think over the other person’s position and compromise if you can.
- If you feel strongly in contradiction to what is being proposed, say, “I’d like to be able to get on your page about this matter, but it just doesn’t work for me. I think we are going to have to compromise.” If you find yourself beginning to argue in the presence of your child, try to refer to your plan for discussing hot topics.
Some ideas include:
- Postpone the discussions until the children are asleep. Or, send older children to their rooms.
- Give the discussion your full attention. Discussing a hot issue while multitasking can invite misunderstandings.
- Agree to no name calling, no interrupting each other, no threats.
- Model yourself after someone you respect who has been successful with relationships.
- Get professional help if you are stuck. Even parents can work on increasing emotional self-management skills.
Respectful communication will not only benefit the marriage, but can influence the way your children will handle disagreement with someone they love.
Phyllis VanHemert, M.Ed., LPC, Inc., works with children and adults within the offices of Paul Tobin, Ph.D., PC and Ann Benjamin, M.Ed., Inc. Phyllis is a school consultant and founder and director of HorseSense of Oklahoma, which provides Equine Assisted Growth and Learning for families and groups.