I need your opinion/advice please. My husband & I got into a huge fight last night in front of our 4-year-old son. This was the first time we've ever fought loudly in front of him. My son ended up crying and telling us to please stop. We were mortified and sad at the same time that we had let him hear us. He ended up even asking me if I was mad at him, too? How much did we damage him?
From: E, Boston
It's true, there is research that says that when parents fight in front of the kids, it can have long-lasting negative effects. But that same research -- which didn't get the same press -- shows that when parents resolve the fight in front of the kids, it can have a positive effect.
When parents get over the fight sincerely and quickly in front of the kids it can model, in a positive way, how to have disagreements and resolve them. What especially upsets children is hardly ever the subject of the argument, but the intensity of it. And what upsets them the most is when the negative feelings spill over into the family interactions. Kids are very sensitive and pick up on this and, because of the magical thinking that goes on even in kids as young as your son, they personalize the fight and take responsibility for it: "I was bad and that's why mom and dad had a fight."
Many parents artificially try never to argue or even disagree in front of their children because they are vaguely aware that research says it's bad for the kids. But conflict is normal in a marriage, indeed in any human relationship. In fact, it's beneficial for kids to see you:
(1) disagree with each other respectfully -- that's key: no name calling, no physicality;
(2) resolve it, even if it's just to say, "You know what, we're both upset, let's call a truce and talk about it when we're calmer." If you can, reach a compromise in front of the kids. Bottom line: Whatever you do to show positive conflict resolution is a gift.
(3) turn away from the disagreement and behave normally.
If you haven't done so already, tell your son: "Remember the other day, when mommy and daddy were fighting? We're sorry that upset you. Moms and dads disagree sometimes. But even when they disagree, they can still love each other. We still love each other, and we will always love you." It's important to say words like this, but it's also important to show by your actions that they are true.
Meanwhile, if you are having problems in your marriage and this interaction threatens to be repeated, seek professional help asap.
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