When parents fight, it affects kids

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 7, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

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

Dear E,

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.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with
some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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19 comments so far...
  1. LW, "fought loudly" obviously sounds as if yelling was involved. That is a problem: yelling is not a healthy way to fight. You and your husband should seek some professional help and learn new ways to disagree. Disagreement is normal and healthy; yelling is not. Yelling shows disrespect, it shows anger problems. And it is very scary for children to see -- they see their parents lose control. It makes their world feel less safe. It can even affect their trust in their parents. And as Barbara said, kids will often blame themselves. One time is not traumatic for kids, but you've argued this way before (you say this is the first time you've fought loudly *in front of him*, so that sounds as if this has happened before). And trust me, at some point, if your fights are loud, he can hear them. If you are in the same house, even if you think he is up in his room away from the fight, he hears you. Get help with this.

    Posted by jlen June 7, 10 06:18 AM
  1. I compare this to people who keep the house silent while baby is sleeping versus babies who are able to sleep through life's noises.

    Couples argue and occasionally raise their voices. This is life in the real world. It doesn't mean you need therapy.

    I think it's important to follow Barbara's advice and show that people can get angry but still love each other and ALWAYS love their children.

    That is how children learn to be secure in the world.

    Posted by Just_Cos June 7, 10 09:56 AM
  1. Yeah, what jlen said. There's a big difference between having a disagreement and resolving it and having a FIGHT. I grew up with my parents fighting constantly in front of me and it caused fear of abandonment, anger, and conflict that I have to work to overcome to this day. And as jlen says, voices carry. I remember being in my bedroom and hearing my parents fight in the room below me.

    Disagreements are a normal part of relationships, but IMO if you are having "loud" fights that include yelling, then you are probably not resolving conflict productively. For yourselves and for your child, seek some counseling so that you can find more productive ways to work out your differences.

    Posted by anita June 7, 10 10:10 AM
  1. i think jlen is jumping the gun with the whole you need professional help bit.
    once in a while if someone raises his/her voice isnt cause for concern

    Posted by jj June 7, 10 10:28 AM
  1. I agree, I thought when I read jlen's comments they seemed a little unrealistic although completely thoughtout. I yell at my husband, he yells at me most times not in front of the kids but sometimes its unavoidable. People get emotional and hot heated especially when you have young children and you are active co-parents. You were not raised exactly the same and I find that my hubs and I clash alot when it comes to typical parent stuff...disipline, proper punishments, patience, over reacting....completely normal and not life altering

    Posted by Judgenot June 7, 10 11:25 AM
  1. Wow, it's amazing how fast people jump to the therapy card whenever anyone has an issue. Yelling is not necessarily an anger management problem. You yell because the person with whom you're arguing isn't listening to you. You don't need to go talk to a counselor, hug it out, and pretend that the world is made of marshmellows and rainbows.

    People fight. Parents fight. Fact of life. What's more important is that you talk about it with the kid, and explain that you worked it out.

    Posted by IK June 7, 10 11:45 AM
  1. Hey, that's going to happen. Hard as I try to bite my tongue sometimes and not just give it to my husband, I just cannot (we have a 9 year-old son). Are there tears? Yes, of course, but our son sees that we can work out our differences, and then laugh about the silly thing we were "yelling" about. That is the way life is, and if a child is not exposed to normal (loud, non-violent) parental arguments, he/she will be at a disadvantage later on in life when they're in the same boat. Arguments happen.

    Posted by Babs June 7, 10 12:17 PM
  1. Really, IK -- "You don't need to go talk to a counselor, hug it out, and pretend that the world is made of marshmellows and rainbows"? Wow, the sarcasm drips there. But it's ridiculous. Disagreements are normal. Arguments are normal. That you and others equate that with loud yelling at each other is bizarre. And that you seem to think people are either normal and yelling or naive and skipping on marshmallows is bizarre. Those are not the only two alternatives. Sheesh, half these commenters appear to have no concept that adults yelling at each other is scary for kids. Rationalize it all you want ("I have to yell, he isn't listening!"). Go for it. Tear your spouse a new one because, as another said, you just can't bite your tongue. Your kids do not thank you for it, and neither are they better people for seeing parents frequently lose it. Kids benefit from seeing respect, and from seeing adults handle arguments respectfully.

    Posted by jlen June 7, 10 02:48 PM
  1. I'm surprised by the commenters who think yelling at a loved one is acceptable. In addition, I'm regularly surprised by the number of people who are not open to therapy and counseling. If you're yelling at loved ones, there's an issue and it needs resolved. Sure, raising voices may be normal. Yelling is not.

    And for IK... "You yell because the person with whom you're arguing isn't listening to you".... all I can say is WOW... and you don't think you need counseling?


    Posted by iast8r June 7, 10 03:08 PM
  1. My wife and I fought a lot, many times in front of our 4 kids. Lots of yelling, screaming, swearing at each other.

    10 years ago, my wife's best friend bragged that "she never fights or yells with her husband". Guess who is divorced (cheating husband with a drug addiction) and guess who is coming up on their 20th year anniversary (still happily married and still fighting).

    Of course my eldest daughter still talks about the time Mom kicked Dad out of the car and made me walk home. We all laugh about it.

    I'm not going to bite my tongue, or not say what is on my mind, or how I am feeling in my same house. When I am mad, I yell and swear. My wife (a doctor) does the same.

    What is family for, if you can't be yourself.

    Therapy is for the birds.

    Posted by Mike R. June 7, 10 04:01 PM
  1. Mike R-
    Who cares what your wife does for a living. My doctor smokes, does that make it right?
    This question isn't about your marriage. This is about how screaming in front of your kids impacts them.
    My parents always screamed at each other. My Father always won because he has a louder voice.
    Is that really what you want to teach your kids about conflict resolution?
    I understand that people get angry. Sometimes you can't help it. But as a rule, parents need to show self-restraint.

    Posted by Donna June 7, 10 04:25 PM
  1. Parents fight. We don't know all the particulars though if it has only happened a few times, I don't know whypeople throw the therapy card for everything. I think that is something that only you and your spouse can decide on.But, just try to stop and take a deep breath and try to calm down before letting it get to that level in front of your child. I am sure you didn't traumatize your child for life.

    Posted by jadee June 7, 10 07:22 PM
  1. Growing up in a large family there were always conflicts, yelling about one thing or another. If the argument didn't involve my brothers and sisters, we would head for the hills until the coast was clear, even tho we could hear what the fuss was about. None of my siblings to this day fight/yell/scream in front of their kids, grand kids.

    Posted by sophie08 June 7, 10 11:19 PM
  1. My husband and I fight, but we don't yell and swear and shout at each other to "be heard". Children on the playground yell and shout and yes, sometimes swear. We're NOT children on the playground.

    Our daughter has seen us get angry with each other and seen that we will walk away before exploding if it comes to that. She's also seen us come together, say, "I'm sorry," and hug and kiss.

    Screaming and yelling is nothing more than uncontrolled anger and anyone who thinks that's a great way to model conflict resolution should probably re-think that.

    My parents never fought in front of us growing up but my father would get very angry and scream at us and frankly, it's not a sight to see or inflict on your spouse or kids - and no, it's not "realistic" either. Realism is letting yourself cool down, even if it means leaving the AO for a little while - and then talking it out without insulting each other with playground antics.

    Posted by Phe June 8, 10 08:13 AM
  1. If you shelter your kids from reality, you're doing them a horrible disservice and they will not be prepared to deal with the real world.

    You don't need therapy because you argue with your spouse. If you teach your kids that you have to go running to a therapist and cry on their couch every time something upsets you, you're doing them a horrible disservice.

    Posted by IK June 8, 10 10:46 AM
  1. LW here, thanks for all the advice/comments. My husband & I have a very healthy relationship and we rarely argue let alone yell loudly at one another so I think we really don't need therapy but thanks :)

    The night after the big argument, we definitely made it a point to hug a lot and generally be more affectionate to one another and our son noticed, he wanted in on all the action putting himself in between us so we'd make a big "family sandwich". We ended up talking about it and we told him that sometimes parents fight and sometimes we can get loud when we fight but that doesn't mean we don't love one another or that we are mad at him and I think he got it.
    I am a realist too and I think sometimes not everything is black & white.

    Posted by E June 8, 10 11:26 AM
  1. I just want to say as a grandmother, that Yes, I understand couples argue. I ask please not in front of the children. I grew up with that all around me and I am 59 years old and I can say I still hate that when I see my son and his wife screaming at each other. As bad as it sounds I rather them separate than to constantly fight. It is not healthy for the children. Already the 9 year old has tummy problems. Everytime they fight she gets a tummy ache. So please people make an effort not to fight, argue whatever you want to call it , in front of your children.

    Posted by Rosemary May 7, 11 11:02 PM
  1. Professional help for yelling? What world do some of you people live in?

    Posted by ME May 31, 12 06:41 AM
  1. I agree that couples arguing (nay fighting?) and raising their voices now and again is probably a sign of healthy marriage but doing so often and with malice and to hurt is definitely not good.

    My wife is usually the one to always startup a fight or bring drama to a situation to "get things started." I'm usually the one that tries to play it down (not avoid) but more like try to be pragmatic. I've learned over the decades not to "try and fix everything" but mostly to listen and understand perspective.

    Yeah, 22 years later, we're still happily married, we still argue about the usual stuff (kids, money, time), and still have the occasional fight. Its part of being human.

    Good luck

    Posted by Rob Mitchell May 31, 12 07:55 AM
 
19 comments so far...
  1. LW, "fought loudly" obviously sounds as if yelling was involved. That is a problem: yelling is not a healthy way to fight. You and your husband should seek some professional help and learn new ways to disagree. Disagreement is normal and healthy; yelling is not. Yelling shows disrespect, it shows anger problems. And it is very scary for children to see -- they see their parents lose control. It makes their world feel less safe. It can even affect their trust in their parents. And as Barbara said, kids will often blame themselves. One time is not traumatic for kids, but you've argued this way before (you say this is the first time you've fought loudly *in front of him*, so that sounds as if this has happened before). And trust me, at some point, if your fights are loud, he can hear them. If you are in the same house, even if you think he is up in his room away from the fight, he hears you. Get help with this.

    Posted by jlen June 7, 10 06:18 AM
  1. I compare this to people who keep the house silent while baby is sleeping versus babies who are able to sleep through life's noises.

    Couples argue and occasionally raise their voices. This is life in the real world. It doesn't mean you need therapy.

    I think it's important to follow Barbara's advice and show that people can get angry but still love each other and ALWAYS love their children.

    That is how children learn to be secure in the world.

    Posted by Just_Cos June 7, 10 09:56 AM
  1. Yeah, what jlen said. There's a big difference between having a disagreement and resolving it and having a FIGHT. I grew up with my parents fighting constantly in front of me and it caused fear of abandonment, anger, and conflict that I have to work to overcome to this day. And as jlen says, voices carry. I remember being in my bedroom and hearing my parents fight in the room below me.

    Disagreements are a normal part of relationships, but IMO if you are having "loud" fights that include yelling, then you are probably not resolving conflict productively. For yourselves and for your child, seek some counseling so that you can find more productive ways to work out your differences.

    Posted by anita June 7, 10 10:10 AM
  1. i think jlen is jumping the gun with the whole you need professional help bit.
    once in a while if someone raises his/her voice isnt cause for concern

    Posted by jj June 7, 10 10:28 AM
  1. I agree, I thought when I read jlen's comments they seemed a little unrealistic although completely thoughtout. I yell at my husband, he yells at me most times not in front of the kids but sometimes its unavoidable. People get emotional and hot heated especially when you have young children and you are active co-parents. You were not raised exactly the same and I find that my hubs and I clash alot when it comes to typical parent stuff...disipline, proper punishments, patience, over reacting....completely normal and not life altering

    Posted by Judgenot June 7, 10 11:25 AM
  1. Wow, it's amazing how fast people jump to the therapy card whenever anyone has an issue. Yelling is not necessarily an anger management problem. You yell because the person with whom you're arguing isn't listening to you. You don't need to go talk to a counselor, hug it out, and pretend that the world is made of marshmellows and rainbows.

    People fight. Parents fight. Fact of life. What's more important is that you talk about it with the kid, and explain that you worked it out.

    Posted by IK June 7, 10 11:45 AM
  1. Hey, that's going to happen. Hard as I try to bite my tongue sometimes and not just give it to my husband, I just cannot (we have a 9 year-old son). Are there tears? Yes, of course, but our son sees that we can work out our differences, and then laugh about the silly thing we were "yelling" about. That is the way life is, and if a child is not exposed to normal (loud, non-violent) parental arguments, he/she will be at a disadvantage later on in life when they're in the same boat. Arguments happen.

    Posted by Babs June 7, 10 12:17 PM
  1. Really, IK -- "You don't need to go talk to a counselor, hug it out, and pretend that the world is made of marshmellows and rainbows"? Wow, the sarcasm drips there. But it's ridiculous. Disagreements are normal. Arguments are normal. That you and others equate that with loud yelling at each other is bizarre. And that you seem to think people are either normal and yelling or naive and skipping on marshmallows is bizarre. Those are not the only two alternatives. Sheesh, half these commenters appear to have no concept that adults yelling at each other is scary for kids. Rationalize it all you want ("I have to yell, he isn't listening!"). Go for it. Tear your spouse a new one because, as another said, you just can't bite your tongue. Your kids do not thank you for it, and neither are they better people for seeing parents frequently lose it. Kids benefit from seeing respect, and from seeing adults handle arguments respectfully.

    Posted by jlen June 7, 10 02:48 PM
  1. I'm surprised by the commenters who think yelling at a loved one is acceptable. In addition, I'm regularly surprised by the number of people who are not open to therapy and counseling. If you're yelling at loved ones, there's an issue and it needs resolved. Sure, raising voices may be normal. Yelling is not.

    And for IK... "You yell because the person with whom you're arguing isn't listening to you".... all I can say is WOW... and you don't think you need counseling?


    Posted by iast8r June 7, 10 03:08 PM
  1. My wife and I fought a lot, many times in front of our 4 kids. Lots of yelling, screaming, swearing at each other.

    10 years ago, my wife's best friend bragged that "she never fights or yells with her husband". Guess who is divorced (cheating husband with a drug addiction) and guess who is coming up on their 20th year anniversary (still happily married and still fighting).

    Of course my eldest daughter still talks about the time Mom kicked Dad out of the car and made me walk home. We all laugh about it.

    I'm not going to bite my tongue, or not say what is on my mind, or how I am feeling in my same house. When I am mad, I yell and swear. My wife (a doctor) does the same.

    What is family for, if you can't be yourself.

    Therapy is for the birds.

    Posted by Mike R. June 7, 10 04:01 PM
  1. Mike R-
    Who cares what your wife does for a living. My doctor smokes, does that make it right?
    This question isn't about your marriage. This is about how screaming in front of your kids impacts them.
    My parents always screamed at each other. My Father always won because he has a louder voice.
    Is that really what you want to teach your kids about conflict resolution?
    I understand that people get angry. Sometimes you can't help it. But as a rule, parents need to show self-restraint.

    Posted by Donna June 7, 10 04:25 PM
  1. Parents fight. We don't know all the particulars though if it has only happened a few times, I don't know whypeople throw the therapy card for everything. I think that is something that only you and your spouse can decide on.But, just try to stop and take a deep breath and try to calm down before letting it get to that level in front of your child. I am sure you didn't traumatize your child for life.

    Posted by jadee June 7, 10 07:22 PM
  1. Growing up in a large family there were always conflicts, yelling about one thing or another. If the argument didn't involve my brothers and sisters, we would head for the hills until the coast was clear, even tho we could hear what the fuss was about. None of my siblings to this day fight/yell/scream in front of their kids, grand kids.

    Posted by sophie08 June 7, 10 11:19 PM
  1. My husband and I fight, but we don't yell and swear and shout at each other to "be heard". Children on the playground yell and shout and yes, sometimes swear. We're NOT children on the playground.

    Our daughter has seen us get angry with each other and seen that we will walk away before exploding if it comes to that. She's also seen us come together, say, "I'm sorry," and hug and kiss.

    Screaming and yelling is nothing more than uncontrolled anger and anyone who thinks that's a great way to model conflict resolution should probably re-think that.

    My parents never fought in front of us growing up but my father would get very angry and scream at us and frankly, it's not a sight to see or inflict on your spouse or kids - and no, it's not "realistic" either. Realism is letting yourself cool down, even if it means leaving the AO for a little while - and then talking it out without insulting each other with playground antics.

    Posted by Phe June 8, 10 08:13 AM
  1. If you shelter your kids from reality, you're doing them a horrible disservice and they will not be prepared to deal with the real world.

    You don't need therapy because you argue with your spouse. If you teach your kids that you have to go running to a therapist and cry on their couch every time something upsets you, you're doing them a horrible disservice.

    Posted by IK June 8, 10 10:46 AM
  1. LW here, thanks for all the advice/comments. My husband & I have a very healthy relationship and we rarely argue let alone yell loudly at one another so I think we really don't need therapy but thanks :)

    The night after the big argument, we definitely made it a point to hug a lot and generally be more affectionate to one another and our son noticed, he wanted in on all the action putting himself in between us so we'd make a big "family sandwich". We ended up talking about it and we told him that sometimes parents fight and sometimes we can get loud when we fight but that doesn't mean we don't love one another or that we are mad at him and I think he got it.
    I am a realist too and I think sometimes not everything is black & white.

    Posted by E June 8, 10 11:26 AM
  1. I just want to say as a grandmother, that Yes, I understand couples argue. I ask please not in front of the children. I grew up with that all around me and I am 59 years old and I can say I still hate that when I see my son and his wife screaming at each other. As bad as it sounds I rather them separate than to constantly fight. It is not healthy for the children. Already the 9 year old has tummy problems. Everytime they fight she gets a tummy ache. So please people make an effort not to fight, argue whatever you want to call it , in front of your children.

    Posted by Rosemary May 7, 11 11:02 PM
  1. Professional help for yelling? What world do some of you people live in?

    Posted by ME May 31, 12 06:41 AM
  1. I agree that couples arguing (nay fighting?) and raising their voices now and again is probably a sign of healthy marriage but doing so often and with malice and to hurt is definitely not good.

    My wife is usually the one to always startup a fight or bring drama to a situation to "get things started." I'm usually the one that tries to play it down (not avoid) but more like try to be pragmatic. I've learned over the decades not to "try and fix everything" but mostly to listen and understand perspective.

    Yeah, 22 years later, we're still happily married, we still argue about the usual stuff (kids, money, time), and still have the occasional fight. Its part of being human.

    Good luck

    Posted by Rob Mitchell May 31, 12 07:55 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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