How Bad Is It Really to Fight in Front of Your Kids?

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I’m not proud to say it out loud, but I’ve definitely raised my voice at my husband in front of my kid more times than I care to admit. My grievance is usually the same—9 times out of 10 it pertains to mess (the dishes! the dust!). Still, I tend to feel bad about it afterwards. Was it OK that my son saw Mom and Dad fighting? Will it scar him forever? According to Janine Domingues, a senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, fighting in front of your kids is OK, but it all depends on the rules of engagement.

Meet the Expert

Janine Domingues is the senior director of professional training for School and Community Programs and a senior psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. The organization—which is dedicated to transforming the lives of kids—recently launched a brand-new set of free parenting resources in partnership with the state of California, called Positive Parenting, Thriving Kids, which tackles issues ranging from parental self-care to how to discuss difficult topics with your children (everything from tech use to racism and bullying).

Rule #1: Respect Is Required

This may seem basic, but we’re guessing parents still need to hear it: Name calling, saying things that are hurtful and disrespectful, swearing at each other—that’s a no-no in general, but especially in front of your kids. “There’s a difference between arguing and fighting,” Domingues says. “It’s OK to model for your kids that there can be differences in opinion where the discussion gets heated, but the effort to stay respectful when hearing another person’s point of view is always front of mind.”

Rule #2: Strike When the Iron Is Cool

If you can wait to argue about a topic you know will get heated, that’s best, Domingues recommends. It’s not about avoidance, it’s about finding space to talk things out when emotions aren’t running high. “Our advice to parents is always, ‘You want to strike when the iron is cool,’” Domingues says. “This is a healthy approach for parents, but also couples in general.” She adds that this is especially true when it comes to repeat argument patterns—i.e. topics that you already know are triggering. (Hello, like my constant battle with getting my family to pick up after themselves.) “You want to find a time when things are calm and you can constructively troubleshoot the problem together.”

Rule #3: Always (Always) Demonstrate the Repair

Let’s say the fight is about the dishes in the sink. It’s fine to address the problem (again, respectfully) in the moment, but make sure your kids also see how you and your spouse reach a resolution. “You want to make clear that you are discussing an issue, but then coming back together and saying, ‘You know, I really appreciate that you shared X, Y and Z’ or ‘It’s obvious that X topic gets me upset and heated. It means a lot that you hear me out on it,’” Domingues says. Even just saying the words “I’m sorry” to each other carries meaning and demonstrates that act of repair. Ultimately, it’s about teaching your kids that people can disagree, but still be kind and loving to each other in the process. In other words, a fight or difference in opinion doesn’t always mean the worst case scenario. “Kids might think, ‘Oh no, my parents hate each other,” or ‘They’re going to get divorced!’ You want to make clear to them that things are OK.” (FYI, this applies even if you punt the discussion until later: Make the effort to make clear that emotions are OK even if they’re sometimes intense.)

4. Rule #4: If You Do Lose Your Cool, Talk That Through Too

Bottom line: You don’t want to leave your kids guessing or feeling unsafe. This means that if you do lose it over a stressful topic in front of them, it’s OK to come back together and address that. “You want them to know that it’s not about perfection or never getting upset,” Domingues says. “Emotions are very valid, but it’s about including your kid in that process. It’s as simple as saying, ‘We’ve got this. It’s not your fault. I felt really stressed in the moment and my emotions got the best of me and I’m sorry if that felt scary.’ You could even just open it up to them and say, ‘How did you feel and what were you thinking when that happened?’ And then, ‘These are the things that I’m going to work on and try next time.’” This leaves channels of communication open—they know they can voice their feelings, that they’re safe, but also that you and your spouse are partnering on the resolution.

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