All couples argue at one time or another – occasional disagreements are part of even the healthiest relationships. After all, we can’t all always agree. But new research shows that kids who constantly see their parents bicker may be more apt to have problems in school.
In a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers took a peek at what was going on inside the homes and classrooms of more than 200 kids (starting at age 6). Once a year for 3 years, they analysed the children’s behaviour, attention span, and ability to focus at home and in school, as well as how the kids perceived their parents’ relationship.
What they found: Kids who were worried about their parents’ regular conflicts tended to have more difficulties in school, often because they had trouble paying attention.
The likely reason, say the researchers: If parents argue all the time, kids may not feel like their home environment is secure – they may worry about divorce, whether their family will stay intact, and what will happen to them. All of that stress and emotional turmoil can add up, which may make kids’ minds focus more on the disputes at home rather than on what’s going on in school.
When tensions are often high and parental arguments get heated, it can contribute to other psychological problems, too – the researchers point to other studies showing that when parents never seem to get along kids tend to be at increased risk for things like:
- Trouble interacting with their peers
Again, nearly every couple will have at least an occasional conflict, especially when you throw kids into the equation. But when you regularly fight in front of your youngsters, it affects more than just you and your significant other. Establishing a good code of conduct can help make your disputes more productive and teach your children how to resolve conflicts respectfully in and out of the home.
Whether your tiffs are frequent or few and far between, it’s important to sit down as a couple and establish some ground rules when it comes to quarrelling. To make your disagreements constructive and not destructive, keep these basics in mind:
- Stay calm.
- Choose your words.
- Express yourself clearly and appropriately.
- Model apologising and forgiving (when kids see their parents fight, they should also see them make up – and not days later).
Of course, there are some don’ts to remember when tempers flare, whether the kids are home or the two of you are alone:
- No hitting, pushing, or threatening.
- No name-calling (even if it’s jokingly).
- No making broad generalisations (this is called "globalising"), like "This always happens" or "You never help me."
- No leaving unless you both agree to take a break or a "time-out" from the conversation (time-outs can help grown-ups, too).
If your kids are around and watching (or hearing) you squabble, it’s also wise to add these other no-no’s to your fighting rule book:
- No yelling.
- No cursing.
- No "triangling" your children into the fight – ever. In other words, don’t involve your kids in your disagreements or expect them to take sides.
Also avoid exposing your kids to arguments about adults-only topics (for example, sex, money, in-laws, etc.). "Safe" arguments might be about hurt feelings or household responsibilities.
Of course, some arguing can be good. There’s no need to always hide behind closed doors, trying to resolve your disputes in whispers. It can actually be healthy for your children to see you and your other half bicker. As long as you both follow the rules for resolving disputes respectfully, it’s okay for your kids to see you angry and to hear raised voices on occasion.
Kids need to understand that everyone gets upset sometimes and that it’s important for people in a family to be able to tell each other how they feel and what they think – even when they disagree. Children who know how to channel their frustration and anger with someone into something positive can learn worthy lessons about life – compromising and negotiating, valuing another person’s perspective, and keeping tempers in check.
Still, kids often do worry when their parents argue. Frequent fighting can make children of all ages feel scared, sad, unprotected, or even guilty if they think they caused all the commotion (kids need to know that it’s never their fault).
Make sure your children understand that even if you fight, you still love each other – that fighting doesn’t mean you’re going to stay angry for long or that you’re going to get a divorce. However, if you find that you and your partner are arguing a lot, it’s wise to seek counselling – for your sake and for your kids.
How parents react to conflicts often lays the foundation for how children deal with others – from friends and siblings now, to bosses and their own families later. If you regularly scream and spit out expletives as little eyes look on and little ears listen, chances are your kids will learn to dole out the same.
(Source: Child Development: Nemours Foundation: October 2008)