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A member of our Facebook community asked a great question, "Is it okay to fight in front of our kids?" Most of us will fight in front of our children, so let's talk about how to do it well.
In general, disagreeing in front of your children can be a great opportunity for them to observe and learn healthy conflict resolution - a tool they will highly depend on in every relationship throughout their lives, but neurological research suggests stress hormones shoot up in children (even sleeping infants) when they hear their parents yelling.
The stress response can be prolonged and appear as anxiety, defiance and misbehavior, but let's be honest - if we are participating in unhealthy conflict resolution (whether or not the kids are around) it has a similar impact on us even as adults. So bottom line - learning healthy conflict resolution is key! If conflict is handled in a healthy way, it almost always brings us closer in our relationship rather than driving us apart.
Here are 5 basic tips to consider when dealing with conflict in front of the kiddos (and most of them are valid whether or not a child is around):
1. BE A GOOD ROLE MODEL.
Eliminate name calling, sarcasm, dismissing your partner's feelings, and bringing up the past. Do not attack your spouse for expressing his/her wants and needs.
HEAR what your partner is saying, reflecting back what you heard and offering empathy. Express observations, emotions an needs in a collaborative way ("When you do _______, I feel _______ because I need _______. It would be really helpful if you will consider doing _______. Does that seem doable to you or do you have any suggestions?"), and, above all, remain respectful - treating your spouse as your partner and not your enemy. (Whew! that is a lot... there are businesses/ministries entirely built around helping couples build on these concepts alone!)
2. IF IT GETS HEATED, CALL A TIME OUT.
Do not send your child to the other room so you can continue fighting. Do make a plan as to when you will return to the discussion after you've had time to calm down.
3. IF THE CONTENT OF THE DISCUSSION IS TOO MATURE OR PRIVATE TO DISCUSS IN FRONT OF THE CHILDREN, MAKE A PLAN AS TO WHEN YOU WILL DISCUSS IT.
Do not avoid or put the conflict off indefinitely. Make a plan as to when you will discuss it so, if necessary, you can plan for childcare arrangements (neighbor, grandparents, or possibly nap time). Again do not send the child away in the midst of a heated discussion - if you send them elsewhere, make it part of a pre-planned time.
4. LET THE CHILDREN SEE THE CONFLICT RESOLVED.
Take ownership of your behavior, making amends/apologizing to your partner if necessary.
5. CHECK IN WITH YOUR CHILD AFTERWARD.
Validate their feelings, affirm it was not their fault, and ensure they know you love them and each other.
So what should you do if your past discussions in front of your children weren't so healthy? Good news is the risk factor for the child comes from repeated experiences, so stay respectful and focus on keeping your home one of warmth, safety, and support.
If this way of fighting seems challenging to you or if you simply need someone to come alongside to help you and your spouse build these habits, please let us know! We would love to support you through our couple's coaching sessions to build on these skills and so much more. It is our privilege to watch you grow into the fullness of all God has designed for your marriage. Learn more about Couple's Coaching with Ron and Halee Wood.
For more great tips on this topic, read this article from "Aha! Parenting."