Archived Q&A and Reviews

Arguing in front of your children

Feb 2007

I'm looking for opinions about what's appropriate in terms of arguing in front of your children. My husband and I have what I would call a healthy and normal relationship. We do, on occassion, get into arguments (usually about totally meaningless issues... you know how that happens...) that can become heated. Although we don't yell loudly at each other, we do sometimes raise our voices. My husband believes that our 2- year-old son gets concerned and worried when we argue, and he believes that we should try to shield him (our son) from hearing us argue. He (my husband) has bad memories of his parents fighting and hiding in his room and feeling scared. He doesn't want to subject our child to that. I, on the other hand, want our son to have a healthy perspective on disagreement. I want him to feel that it is okay to disagree, and okay to argue, but that doesn't mean you don't love the person you disagree with. I'm not sure that hiding disagreement/conflict from your child is the best approach. Any thoughts? I'm wondering if others have come up with some good ideas on how to handle this, especially when your child is still very young.

Disagreement and arguing is a normal (and necessary) part of any relationship. I think it helps us to understand our partners better and it brings us closer together. I agree with you -- your child should learn a sense of healthy disagreement. My hubby was raised in a household where he never once witnessed his parents argue. I, on the other hand, was raised in a very abusive family where arguing and yelling was all too common.

This created some friction in our relationship when we first started dating since he had learned to be submissive and I had learned to be argumentative. He did not know how to express himself and I didn't know how to amicably end an argument. I think arguing (and making up) in front of your child teaches them a valuable lesson in communicating with others. anon

I think the important thing to show your child is how to RESOLVE the conflict, disagreement, arguement, whatever.

I do think that at 2 1/2 y.o. child doesn't need to witness your arguing, mainly because it's probably just scary to him, and what kids need at this age is security (well, at all ages really!) but ultimately, as your child gets older and has more comprehension skills, I would say that you are correct in feeling that your child needs to see ''healthy'' disagreements between you two, but as I said, also needs to see ''healthy'' resolutions as well. I have a step daughter who has never learned how to face, let alone deal with conflict or conflict resolution because her mother was of the same opinion of your husband. This is a very important life skill.

It sounds like your husband also grew up in a household where healthy resolutions to problems/arguements/disagreements were never presented to him. How does he deal with conflict?

I have a younger daughter (6) that gets upset sometimes when her dad and I fight (which isn't that often - currently ;-]). She'll say to us, ''Stop arguing!'' To which we both reply, ''it's ok to argue or to have disagreements, as long as you can come to a solution in the end.''

There is no way to avoid conflict in ones lifetime. Better to prepare your child for it and with tools to show them how to do it effectively and respectfully. your allowed to disagree!

You stated that ''I want him (my child) to feel that it is okay to disagree, and okay to argue, but that doesn't mean you don't love the person you disagree with. I'm not sure that hiding disagreement/conflict from your child is the best approach.'' Perhaps you should look at disagreement and argument as being different from each other. A husband should be able to tell his wife in front of his children that he disagrees with her. It's just a different point of view. If his wife is OK with it, and the couple can discuss their perspectives calmly and openly, the child will to respect the value in voicing disagreement. If his wife chooses to argue with raised voice about it, however, the child may learn instead that stating disagreement is disrespectful.

Well, I'll weigh in from one side of the equation: my parents made a conscious choice to never argue in front of their children, and I don't think that was ideal. I didn't get to see that people who love each other disagree and get angry at each other sometimes, that this is a normal part of a healthy relationship, and that they are not destroyed by this and still love each other afterwards. Both myself and my sibling had some catching up to do as adults, learning how to deal with conflict. I think today I still wouldn't want to have a major fight in front of my child, but I don't plan to act like life is all sweet and light 24/7 either. Too Sheltered

I see both sides on this. Generally, I agree with your husband. While I am not a psychologist, I think that any heated arguments should be taken to another room - not in front of such a young child; he's too young to get it. However, as the child gets older, I think having ''discussions'' that show adults engaging and problem-solving together, where both parties present their sides and compromise, negotiate, etc.. is a good thing. My parents were confrontation-averse, and as a result, my sister and I, I believe, really didn't know how to deal with confrontation, arguments, etc.. But, I think this is for when the child is much older. Confrontation averse adult

I agree with you that children benefit when they can see adults disagree and still be respectful of each other, and then arrive at a healthy resolution. In my mind, however, healthy arguing does not involve raised voices. I also think any topic related to the kids would be strictly off limits. anon

I was just talking to my therapist about this very same type of situation. I've noticed at times when I'm talking calmly to my husband, but am trying to convey my anger or frustration to him, my daughter picks right up on it -- even at age two she did. Nowadays she tells us things like ''Guys I don't like how you talk like that'' and back then she would just try really hard to get our attention -- likely to deflect the mood. I'm not exactly sure how to handle it other than to just plan to talk about it after the kid is asleep or the two of you are alone.

But, from what I understand from my therapist and my husband who grew up with parents arguing a lot is that as a child I think you really look to your parents to be solid for you -- a stable force that's there for you 24/7. And seeing (or even sensing) parents fighting, arguing, or even quibbling is stirring up that sense of stability that they so strongly depend upon.

I think your husband is right, but I'm not exactly sure what the answer is. And while I agree with you about letting her know that people disagree and it's okay later, I think kids are so here and now -- meaning if they see it happening, to them its a scary thing and they can't comprehend a resolution at that time. And these things have so much more of an impact on them in their young and inexperienced lives.

Good luck -- I'm sure lots of BPN folks have suggestions on how to hold off the discussion until later. Wondering how to disagree too

One time when my husband and I were bickering in the car, our then 18 mo old daughter put her hands over her ears and said ''Too loud!'' Since we weren't speaking that loudly, it seemed clear that our tone was bothering her. I agree that a healthy relationship has honest communication and an open response to conflict, but lots of bickering and heated arguments are not great for kids to hear, and frankly aren't that great for the relationship. I've heard, and I agree, that in a relationship one needs to say 5 positive things just to make up for 1 negative one (or have 5 loving interactions to make up for 1 arguing one--and really, who has that kind of time?) After the car incident, my husband and I made a conscious effort to not bicker or argue in front of our daughter and to save arguments for when we were alone. Not only was our child happier, but we ended up arguing a lot less and having a better relationship as well. (I had to admit that it wasn't always necessary to tell him every single thing I was feeling right when I felt it. This wasn't always ''honesty'' on my part, but a lack of maturity and an inability to wait until a more appropriate time. Usually, by the time we had an opportunity to talk about something, I realized that it wasn't that important in the first place or if it was, then I had time to think of a succinct and respectful way to tell him what I was feeling and it didn't always turn into an agument.) You and your spouse don't always have to agree, but your disagreements should be respectful and stated in a calm tone. Anything else is needlessly stressing your child. arguing less & much happier

I've thought a lot about this issue and I know the developmental research about the effects of parental conflict on children fairly well (I am a child psychologist). I think it is a good idea to limit fighting in front of children. HOWEVER, the only way to do this is to fight after they are fast asleep or when you are not all in the house together (not always realistic options). I think if kids are anywhere in the house and there is tension between parents, the kids will know it. Furthermore, I agree with you that while parental conflict causes some anxiety for most kids, it is also good for them to understand that people can argue and still love one another. The key is to resolve the dilemma in front of your children. Hug, kiss, come to a decision/ agreement, whatever. So, I would say that some conflict in front of children is OK, as long as no one is getting really hurt and as long as the kids see the resolution. Liz O.

Hi, I'm with you. I don't agree with sheltering your kids from everything. Kids need to know that disagreements can be worked out. But this being said, I think it's VERY important to keep in mind how you argue and when it's happening in front of your son, to try to keep an eye on him as to how uncomfortable he may be. It sounds like you are already being aware of these things. My husband and I also have had arguments in front of our 18-month-old. It's actually helped US be more constructive with our arguing! The other aspect that we ABSOLUTELY do, is calm down, talk it out and make up in front of our daughter so she understands the whole process. If we are in a more serious fight in which we can tell we will need a ''long talk'' we reserve those for when our daughter isn't around.

You may want to discuss with your husband what kinds of fights he remembers. Did he run away from heated disputes or full- blown out angry fights? How did his parents argue and make up? I think it's all in the way it's handled. Anon

I'm no expert but I have two young children, a Masters degree in Counseling, and work with disturbed children and families, where this issue definitely comes up. My take on arguing in front of your children falls more in your camp with a healthy dose of ''be careful-this is a slippery slope''. The episodes may also feel less severe to you than they do to your child, who can not communicate that with you. Along with all the other great advice I'm sure you will get on this issue is my two cents:
1) Watch your child for signs of fear, becoming withdrawn, appearing tuned out during your fights, trying to redirect your energy by acting up during your fights, trying to mediate (when he gets older). If you see these signs you may want to shield him more from your arguments than you thought you had to or modify the way you argue.
2) Try not to draw the argument out too long in front of your child. If you need more time state that you will talk about this later.
3) Make sure that if you want your child to see healthy arguments that he also EXPLICITLY sees healthy empathy, fighting fair, giving in when it really is a trivial argument, I statements, your taking appropriate time outs when it gets too heated, explicit confirmations of your love DURING and after the storm, and apologies. All the things you hope he will learn to do, you have to model.
4) Try not to argue in the car where you child is trapped (as are you) and can't get away if he feels he needs to.
5) Never involve your child in your arguments or argue about him in front of him
6) NEVER name call or put the other parent down in front of your child
7) NEVER become aggressive - in tone or action. Something that seems harmless to you (throwing something down in frustration, slamming your hand down on a table, or slamming a door) may be very scary to a small child.

I'm sure there's much more I could add and I'm sure you will get lots of advice about great books you can read on the subject. I suggest you pick one up so you can get an unbiased view of the issue. A very wise extended relative of mine once said, when I asked her what the key to a happy marriage and children is, Always be polite. Easier said than done but a good standard to strive for. Striving for a healthy balance

I have heard that it's not your child seeing the arguing that matters most, it's your child seeing the reconciliation. This carries over, too, to your arguments with your child. Make sure you have an honest and true reconciliation. Model for your child what you want in your own life. anon

I, too, grew up in a house where my mom and stepfather argued... horrendous, ugly, screaming and shouting, dish throwing arguments. I was distraught; my younger brother was terrified and hid in his closet. Now that I'm a mother of an adult male, and in a *healthy* relationship wherein most arguments don't escalate to ugliness, just somewhat heated disagreements, I would say that there is a fine medium; children shouldn't grow up believing that no one argues, particularly when they inherently know when there's some disagreement going on but no one's owning up to it, i.e. parents are hiding all their arguments for the sake of the child. I do think it's healthy to have HEALTHY disagreements in front of children. I do think also that major arguments/disagreements need to be saved for a time when the child isn't within hearing distance. I say, don't hide it when you're pissed off, but don't make act they don't happen, either. Anony and not Screaming

I too have been wondering about this - my husband and I have been dealing with a profound amount of stress and have ended up in situations similar to yours and I was beginning to worry about the effect on my child too. I read as much as I could find and this was generally what I found: excessive/constant marital conflict can have a negative effect on your child but that a normal level was okay so long as your child sees you MAKE UP too and sees that you work through it. Other suggestions I found helpful were to make sure that your child sees you both being loving to each other at other times (hugs, laughs) and to also be careful HOW you argue ( no assault on character- stick to the issue) and to be good listeners and not interrupt (it takes a little practice!). I have tried to do less arguing in front of my 2-y.o but when it's inevitable, I try to be a little more conscientious about how we conduct our disagreements. My child picks up very quickly on our stress and so if I sense he's upset by our argument, I'll find an appropriate moment to tell him that mommy and daddy are just talking about XYZ and we were feeling frustrated but everything's okay. I'm with you and think its okay for kids to see a healthy range of emotions. My husband grew up not seeing ANY arguments between his parents and consequently thinks that conflict=divorce rather than growth and goes to great lengths to avoid conflict (in an unhealthy martyrdom kind of way). anon

My husband and I are going through a divorce. We have been arguing since day 1 in front of our son, who is now almost 4. I have done a lot of reading lately about how this arguing (pre and post divorce) affects kids of all ages. It is terrible. It is not healthy. It does scare them, a lot. So your husband is right and I think that his personal experience on the subject (as the recipient) should be testimony that he is right.

However, on a more personal note from me about your opinion that it is not healthy to hide conflict from your children, I say that you are right too, in a way. Kids will inevitably see disagreements between parents, but it's not about disagreeing, it's about HOW you disagree. I would say that trying to curb your arguing in front of your child is best - but you WILL still argue sometimes in front of him. If you can show him how to disagree in a healthy, respectful way (not yelling, not getting personal, no name calling, etc) and that afterwards you two are still very much ''together'' - I think that is a healthy example and sends a positive message about the reality of relationships. And does it in a way that does not scare the child. I only wish my husband and I were able to follow this advice. Perhaps it would have saved our marriage and prevented our son from acting out and being aggressive due to the fights. kgpersmail

I am guilty of this and I definitely think it is upsetting to the child (not to mention, you and your spouse). My 2 year old now tells us to stop talking! They will imitate whatever you do so unless you want to have discussions with your child similar to the ones you are having with your child, watch it. I agree with you that conflict is unfortunately a part of married life but there are people who work it out really well (ie, not just waiting until the child is in bed to yell at each other) and the rest of us should try to emulate them. mrs. bickerson

I have a hard time stopping an argument, even in front of my young (18 months) son, so I can relate to this. I have also thought that maybe I am teaching him about conflict etc., but the truth is, I am out of control when I fight in front of him, and our kids, IMO, are too young to make the kind of connections about relationships you describe. All they know is that something unnerving is going on, and they become anxious. I really think you should make an effort to stop fighting in front of your son.

I can see both sides. I was one of those kids who hid under the bed whenever my parents fought. They raised their voices and slammed doors. I also want my child to learn appropriate ways of handling disagreements. The solution I have with my husband is that we don't raise our voices. If we feel that heated about an issue, we wait until we're calmer and more clear headed, then discuss the matter. Similar to the way I'd handle a disagreement with a co-worker or other person I respected. Still cringe at raised voices

It's a fine line between modeling how to successfully negotiate through disagreement, and yelling at each other. There is nothing wrong with ''heat''. There IS something wrong if you can't play fair, be resolution-oriented, both compromise to meet your goals, and most importantly, speak in civil tones (not raising your voices).

If you do all that, by all means, teach your child by example how this is done. If you don't, then the problem is with you (not to point fingers. Many have this problem, me included). Discuss hot topics later in privacy. As your child gets older, perhaps he can be around more of these adult interactions without fear. But for now, he may only learning to be frightened and to raise voices. Apparently, your husband learned that well as a child, and now he does the same thing. See what I mean? Children need to feel safe and secure

Getting pulled into a family argument

Oct 2006

My ex sister-in-law and my 18 year-old niece came by to my home for a homemade lunch over the weekend. Recently, my niece has had a few mishaps with her mom's car and has caused some dings, accidently inserted diesel instead of regular gas to the car's engine, (a $700 expense), and unfortunately that same day, my niece scratched the car. While we were having lunch, the mom announced that my niece lost her driving privileges, which in turn infuriated my niece who begged and pleaded and explained that what she did were accidents and were not done on purpose. My ex sis-in-law repeatedly stated ''Well, if you really cared about other people's property you wouldn't have done any of this.'' The mom continued to lambast repeating blow-by-blow detail of each car mishap, forecasting future mishaps, and rebutting my niece's expression of sentiment stating the crying wasn't going to change her mind. They then erupted into shouting match as I felt myself tremble with fear as I felt the hate and disappointment in the air with my husband and sons who were in the backyard asking and wondering if everything was okay. Suddenly, mom then asks me what's my opinion on the matter and placed me on the spot. I could understand the point of view of both but I didn't want to say anything as I doubted anything I said would make a difference and feared I would say something to make things worse. It was the first time I had ever seen my friend display such rage and hate under any circumstance whom I've invited to my home many times. The gathering felt really uncomfortable and I regretted having had invited them only because the situation had turned so horrendous. That night as I lay my head to sleep, I couldn't help feeling regretful of my own poor actions toward my own mother apologizing in my mind for treating her so poorly and wishing I wasn't so mean to her. But, nevertheless, I love my niece and her mom and I felt tremendous sadness after they left wondering what their memories will be of each other but felt it was unfair and wrong in placing me on the spot. I wonder if I should call the mom on it Awkward Position

You're right. You were pulled in. Did you say to them what you told us: that nothing you could say would make a difference to eaither of them while they were in the heat of anger? You were right about that, too. I'm not sure there's much you can do at this point, except talk to your own family about how much that encounter upset you, and perhaps talk about ways to never let such a situation (anger that does not allow you to even hear the other) happen in your own family. anon

Your s-i-l was wrong to pull you in, but the conflict between her and your niece sounds pretty run of the mill to me. Teenagers' total lack of consideration for the personal property of others can be very aggravating and frankly, the consequences her mom was imposing don't sound out of line to me. I think you handled it just fine not to side with either party, however. Look at it this way - a useful learning experience for you - a preview of the coming attractions of teenager-hood for you!! And -- it shows they really consider you a part of the family if they fight in front of you. Fran

I'm sorry your lunch was anything but savory. At this time, I recommend that you let this event fly over. However, if your ex sister-in-law asks you, tell her that you while you sympathize with her, you don't feel comfortable taking sides and that it's up to her to decide what to do. I know it was an unpleasant experience, but I wouldn't be too concerned as it is normal for families especially teenagers to fight once in a while and not all get togethers are pleasant. I would only be worried if it happens again. In that case, I would tell her that you don't feel comfortable with her fighting in your house. Hopefully, it won't come down to that and you will have many future happy meetings with your ex sister-in-law and niece. Anon

Well, it sounds like you don't have teenagers in your house... I think it was wrong for your ex-SIL to get into a hot topic and then ask your opinion on it. I think it's appropriate to call her on that, asking her not to put you on the spot like that but that'd you'd be willing to talk one on one. I think you're being a little harsh on your ex SIL. As lovely as your niece may be with you, teenagers are different creatures with their parents. We have a 15 year old in our house and all I can say is that it's like having a baby, if you don't have one, you have no idea what it can be like. Our friends can find our son's moods humerous and chuckle and role their eyes, but after it while it can wear you down. I'm sure your friend wasn't talking with hate, but more out of frustration of constantly having everything turn into an argument, as it can often be with a teenager. Our son will walk into the house just looking for an arguement sometimes and pushing our buttons by doing things he absolutely knows are inapproriate. He's a great kid, with great moments and we are always getting reports of how polite and considerate he is. But at home our job as parents is to give him something to rebel and push against, and that he does. I rather he show his teenage angst that way rather than doing poorly in schoold, drugs or running with the wrong crowd. He shows no respect for our things, but god forbid we should even touch the door knob to his room. Anyway, your friend's outburst was inappropriate, but maybe she had just been pushed over the edge after a culmination of other arguments. anon

You did the right thing by not getting involved. I don't think it's necessary to ''call'' them mom on her inappropriate putting you on the spot. That would be getting involved. She probably realized as soon as you answered that she shouldn't have asked. Let it go and don't worry too much about their fight either. They will be fine. anon