It’s long been known that parental conflict can impact children negatively, but there are ways to argue well, writes Jen Vuk.
My husband and I have two young children, and, while both of us obviously want the best for them and parent from a place of love, there are times when we argue. Loudly.
That’s just the kind of couple we are—demonstrative, especially when the pressures of work/home/life get too much. But we recognise that, while this may have done minimal damage before the children came along (frankly, the cat hardly noticed), now when we disagree, often we have two pairs of ears at the ready and finely-tuned to our raised voices.
There seems little doubt that constant fighting between parents leaves a mark on children. In a longitudinal study spanning many years, US family researcher Paul Amato found that family conflict was ‘associated with emotional problems in children’.
But that’s not to say that all disagreements are created equally. Conflict is a part of life and children need to understand that arguments can be constructive, too.
As US professor of psychology Mark Cummings says: ‘Problems occur every day. But if parents problem-solve and try to work it out, if they come up with a resolution or work toward it, if the parents show positive emotion when they are in the middle of fighting, if they say nice things to each other or are affectionate, kids see all these things as very positive and it changes how kids see the conflict.’
As children try to make sense of the world around them, it’s important that they are able to predict the behaviours and responses of important people in their lives. They need to see their parents being able to control emotions and resolve conflicts in a way that doesn’t threaten the stability of the family.
Here are some suggestions on how to manage and work through conflict in the home:
• Avoid shooting from the hip or being reactionary. While we all have a way of pushing each other’s buttons, it’s best to try to step away from the conflict and have a chance to cool down. Try saying something like ‘I realise you have a point, but right now I feel unable to respond adequately.’
• Avoid name-calling or talking in absolutes, such as ‘You never cook’. Instead, try speaking honestly, but in a positive way, such as: ‘I’d really appreciate it if you could cook your [a dish they’re comfortable cooking]. That was delicious last time and I really feel like that tonight.’
• Resolve conflicts in a positive way. Learn the art of compromise and apologise when you do something wrong.
• Most importantly, keep your children out of the middle and don’t make them a go-between.
• Take the time to develop a parenting plan that’s geared to you and your partner’s needs. Put hot-button issues, such as holidays, finances and problems that may arise with your children’s school work or with friends, on the table and discuss them at a time when you don’t have other pressures upon you.
• If needs be, seek professional help. Better conflict resolution is something we all benefit from and there’s no stigma in reaching out. It’s also a message worth passing on to your children.