This article first appeared on Your Tango and has been republished with permission.
Did you watch your parents fight in front of you when you were growing up? Remember vowing that when you got to be an adult you and your spouse wouldn't be fighting in front of your kids like that?
Yet, studies show that we are more likely to replicate our parenting style based upon what we saw in our own family upbringing. But the good news is that you can break the pattern, and not just replicate how you were parented.
The biggest predictor of how we will perform as parents is how much we’ve been able to make sense out of our own past.
So be sure to keep one eye open as to how you behave in the next argument you have in front of your kids. Do you find yourself overreacting frequently to what your husband says? Or, do you jump to conclusions and find yourself negatively reacting to certain words more than others? When you’re really stressed, perhaps you hear your mother’s critical voice in your head and find that it shadows how you approach parenting in general.
In Psychology Today, Laura Markham Ph.D., reported that neurological research indicates that when children hear yelling, their stress hormones shoot up. In fact, even a sleeping infant registers loud, angry voices and experiences a rush of stress chemicals that takes some time to diminish. This biophysical reaction to stress can impact your child’s developmental growth both psychologically and physically.
From your child’s perspective, you, as their parent, are the center of their universe. When an argument between you and your spouse quickly disintegrates into an abusive yelling match, then your child’s world can become a scary one. Developmentally, your child might become anxious, prone to depression, develop low self-esteem or grow into a fearful adult.
When mom and dad argue, oftentimes, the child feels responsible and that it’s their fault.
For example, if the child failed to finish their homework, or clear the dishes after dinner and later in the evening mom and dad start squabbling, the child internalizes it and feels guilty. Ultimately, this can lead to a lifelong pattern of feeling negative emotions such as guilt, shame and self-hatred.
When parents argue, kids have nowhere to go. In the heat of the battle, the parents are locked into each other consumed by their own emotions of resentment, miscommunication, being disrespected or unheard. It’s at this same moment, that the child needs their parents the most!
By fighting with each other, the parents are emotionally unavailable to their child. Therefore, your child learns to stuff their own emotions, only to have them surface later as negative behaviors, such as anger, lying or fighting. Over time, your child might cope by withdrawing and isolating which manifests in a lack of trust and an inability to have successful intimate relationships as an adult!
Regardless of how you were raised or what you’ve witnessed in your own family growing up, today, you have a choice to make a positive difference in your own child’s life, as well as in the quality of your own marriage!
Conflict is part of the human condition, and it matters as to how you cope with life stressors and how you react in front of your kids.
What do you say when you feel unheard by your spouse? Whether it’s a dismissive label or name calling, at the very least it’s negative and at the very most, hurtful, possibly leading to an escalated argument.
So why are you surprised when your 3-year-old tells her doll to “SHUT UP!”, in the exact tone of voice your wife yelled at you last night? Right now, it’s important to hit the pause button and give a temperature reading as to how healthy your marital discord is while on display in front of your kids. What grade would you give your performance?
Some experts say you shouldn’t fight in front of the kids. They call it abuse. Others say it’s important to role model healthy discord in front of the kids. Most likely, it’s a combination of both how to argue (not fight), and how to positively engage your partner in a respectful way and still get your point across.
The bottom line: All couples have disagreements. Certainly, there’s a difference between arguing and fighting. It's best for kids if you model how to handle those disagreements with respect and affection, while looking for solutions instead of blame. Don’t you agree?
The goal is for the child to observe two adults having a disagreement in a healthy respectful way and still love each other when it’s over.
Your child gets the opportunity to hear you both discuss your differences in a collaborative way. It also allows your child to learn that successful problem solving includes: thinking about it, communicating their ideas to the other person and finally to listen and learn from the other person.
That's why managing the argument so that it doesn’t escalate into a screaming match is all about effective communication and striking a balance between you and your spouse.
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Here are 12 ways you and your spouse can find a balance during a difficult conversation:
1. See it from your spouse’s perspective. Listen and reflect back. “So you’re saying that you want to buy a larger TV and put it in the den? Is that right?” Or, “So I’m hearing you say that you’d rather go fishing on Saturday with the guys and reschedule our plans for another time in a couple of weeks and that you’re going to make it up to me big time? Is that it?” (smile). Reflecting back is acknowledgement, NOT agreement!
2. If you have a difference of opinion give it voice without anger. “I’m hearing you say…. Actually, I have a different proposition. I was thinking you could get your large TV, but not quite as large — I just want to make certain it fits on the wall. Can we talk about it some more?”
3. Ask clarifying questions when needed. Don’t assume.
4. Start by grounding yourself with a slow deep breath. This will help you stay calm, cool and collected, no matter where the discussion goes.
5. Be a friend, rather than a disgruntled spouse. Treat your spouse with that same level of respect.
6. Be positive, patient and considerate. A simple “Thank you” or a warm smile, can change the tone of the entire conversation — or the entire evening!
7. When you notice that you’re both saying the same thing, acknowledge it! “It sounds like we both agree on this.”
8. Don’t compete to have the last word. Really, that isn't what matters.
9. Notice your body and emotions. If you’re upset then say so. “I think I need a break, I’m feeling tense right now, and I don’t want to argue with you.”
10. Be the first to "own it.". if you snap back without thinking! Recalibrate and say: “I’m sorry, I just got upset.”
11. Positively support each other while you’re talking. Say things like, “That sounds Great!“ Or, “Wow — I appreciate you noticing that I did that!” You might even ask, "How do you feel about that?” or “What is it you need from me right now?”
12. At the end of a difficult discussion, a big hug or smile can tell the kids that there are no hard feelings. Show them that you can disagree and still end on a good note.
If this issue can't be resolved calmly or quickly, here's what to do next:
1. Identify and be prepared to deal with hot topics ahead of time. Pre-arrange a verbal (“nachos” or “mellow yellow”) or nonverbal signal (hand signal). This alerts your partner to stop the conversation and finish behind closed doors. NO Exceptions!
2. Complete the conversation in your bedroom quietly after the kids are asleep. Or if it’s late, make an appointment to continue the discussion at another time —and keep that appointment.
3. Finally, do NOT include your child or children in the discussion. Do not use your children as messengers! Do not encourage your child to gang up with you on your spouse! Avoid language like, “Go tell your mother…..” or “Give this to your father and tell him, ‘I’ll talk to him when I’m good and ready.” Be especially diligent about never bad-mouthing your partner. Sentences like, “Your father cheated on me with another woman, but you can’t tell him I told you so,” or “She is a terrible mother," should never be said in front of your kids.
Ultimately, how you fight in front of your kids teaches them how to handle conflict themselves.
Your kids are a mirror of you! You’ll notice it when they repeat what you say and how you behave. This is more reason for you to slow things down and self-evaluate your stress levels.
How do you show up in your marriage and family when you’re exhausted, agitated or feel like you’re out of options? How do you feel after having an ugly argument with your spouse and notice that the entire family seems on edge? What can you do to decompress yourself and the kids?
As soon as you decide to do your part differently, the healing begins for you and the whole family!
If you don’t know where to start, or if you feel like you’ve tried but nothing’s changed, then you might need to reassess your efforts and your beliefs about change:
Old Belief: “Nothing will ever change, it’s not my fault it’s his!”
New Belief: “I can’t control his behavior but I can control my own!
New Behavior: I’ve decided to stop slamming kitchen cupboards while hurling insults at him.
If the task seems bigger than you, then perhaps you might talk to your spouse about seeing a marriage counselor for some co-parenting tips together. Whatever you decide, don’t give up!
Your positive efforts towards change can be life changing for every member in the family — including YOU!