Couples often have disagreements. While healthy conflict can teach your child positive lessons, unhealthy conflict can lead to long-term effects such as depression and anxiety.
When Allison and Jim brought their newborn daughter home, they agreed to never fight in front of her. In their minds, this would be easy — they’d just keep their disagreements private. But they soon discovered that wasn’t easy to do.
All couples argue at one time or another. But the emotions present during a heated disagreement can be so heightened that logic and discretion may be nonexistent.
Allison and Jim quickly figured this out and began to wonder what impact their fights had on their daughter.
Was their arguing affecting her mental health? Could they be causing damage to her as she witnessed their disagreements?
The simple answer is yes.
When parents argue, it can impact the children — but the type of impact can depend on whether the conflict is healthy and productive or negative and harmful.
Disagreements between two independent individuals in a long-term relationship will happen. So, if it’s natural, why does it present such a challenge when children are around? Won’t they face the same issue someday?
Of course, they will.
But before they navigate the ins and outs of relationship conflict themselves, it’s crucial that they first learn how that’s done in a healthy and respectful manner.
This is where parent disagreements can become a concern. Some parents don’t know how to argue healthily and thus can become negative role models of conflict resolution for their children.
For better or worse, each parent develops their own fighting style within the relationship. It may or may not be healthy and productive, but one thing is certain: When your child sees you argue, it can leave an impression and have a lasting effect.
Most parents have the best intentions when it comes to their children. But as disagreements become heated, without effective strategies for resolving conflict, good intentions can become overrun by the reality of emotion-driven behavior.
When parents are unable to argue and resolve issues in a healthy way, it can affect their children’s mental health.
Many studies have documented the negative effects of relational conflict and parental hostility toward one another on their children, according to a
Researchers in this study examined how parental conflict affects a child’s attachment style and the long-term effects of conflict on a child’s mental health.
They found that negative emotional tone, lingering tension, and failure to reconcile can cause problems in a child’s ability to relate to others and their feeling of security. This study examined only the effect of conflict 8 years later, and the number of participants was small, so more research is needed.
From the moment a child is born, parents are responsible for shaping the world in which that child lives. The level of safety, emotional stability, love, and comfort a child experiences depends on how the parents and family structure their surrounding environment.
Regular, hostile, or abusive arguing undermines the safety a child feels and can leave them emotionally insecure and uncertain of their present and future.
The 2016 study suggested that over time these effects can lead to:
- anxiety or worry
Parents may not realize the impact their fighting can have on their children. Being consumed with their own interrelationship problems can leave them blind to how their constant arguing can affect their children.
Some of these effects can often be clearly observed.
- aggressive behavior such as hitting, kicking, or throwing things
- being withdrawn, overly cautious, or distrustful of others, especially adults
- symptoms of depression
- disinterest in school or failure to engage in educational activities
- inability to concentrate or pay attention
- anxious or worried that something bad will happen
- breaking rules
In addition to mental health effects, there can also be physical effects.
This can include:
- a lack of energy
- changes in appetite
- trouble sleeping
In adulthood, the child may engage in romantic relationships early or cannot maintain relationships.
So, what can parents do? Is it as simple as not fighting and avoiding conflict altogether?
No, and there would be nothing simple about that anyway.
Couples have friction and arguments. But doing it in a way that limits the negative impact on your child’s mental health is crucial.
Easy? No. Crucial? Yes.
Since it can be difficult to think through anger and frustration in the heat of the moment, consider these preemptive tips for reducing the impact of fighting on your child’s mental health.
- Planning is preventive. Couples in a committed relationship will face challenges and have disagreements, so having a plan is helpful. Designate a private space (such as a garage or car) or time (when the children are at school or asleep) and agree that’s where and when you’ll have your more heated discussions.
- Learn to communicate properly. Good communication is an important relationship skill and something you can both practice and model for your children. If your arguments have a history of being loud or cruel, consider learning more effective ways of communicating.
- Watch your surroundings. As the 16th-century proverb says, “Little pitchers have big ears.” Your children take in more than you realize, so try to be mindful of your surroundings even if you think they’re not paying attention or are asleep.
- Talk with your child. Your children may witness or at least realize that you’re arguing. Try to talk with them about what they’ve seen or heard and how they feel about it. Try to answer any questions simply and briefly and reassure them.
- Make sure they see the good. When they’ve seen you argue, it’s important that they also see you make up. The resolution part of the conflict is often missed, yet it’s crucial to teach children that a fight doesn’t mean you stop loving someone. Ensuring they routinely see respect and affection between the two of you can be a good lesson in effective communication.
Allison and Jim’s concerns aren’t uncommon. Many parents assume that they need to conceal all fighting from their children.
The fact that children have witnessed their parent’s disagreements doesn’t automatically mean that their mental health will be impacted. In fact, a certain amount of arguing in front of your kids can be healthy.
Conflict that isn’t abusive, and has a clear resolution that’s rooted in love and respect, can teach a child several positive things, such as:
- conflict resolution
- disagreements don’t mean people don’t love each other
- you don’t always have to agree to be close
- how to feel comfortable when they’re expressing their feelings
Not all fights between parents are respectful, loving, or healthy, so the lessons taught in those cases are far different, and the effects on a child can be harmful.
Fighting becomes potentially damaging when:
- it’s loud with yelling, screaming, physical posturing, or physical contact
- it’s abusive and unkind with derogatory or insulting remarks
- it involves the children directly — either being about them or pulling them into it
- it goes unresolved, creating an angry, uncomfortable atmosphere
In these cases, what the child learns isn’t healthy and can cause long-term damage to their mental health and future relationships.
Yes, fighting in front of your child can have a lasting impact. But it doesn’t have to be a negative one.
You can learn how to communicate respectfully and effectively. Try to let your children see you resolve your fight and that you still love each other.
Talking with them to ensure they understand they’re safe and loved by both parents can also be helpful.
For parents like Allison and Jim — and you — the goal isn’t to not argue in front of your child but rather to try to argue in a positive way that teaches them how to have healthy conflict.
Doing this can help them become capable of developing healthy relationships of their own.