Most parents will argue in front of their children at some point. It can be difficult to think clearly when emotions are running high, but how you handle these conflicts is crucial for your child’s wellbeing and their understanding of how relationships work says Tanith Carey

Tanith is the bestselling author of Girls Uninterrupted and is heard regularly on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

Scenario:During an argument with your partner, your child shouts at you both to stop fighting.

She Says:“Stop fighting!”

Your child may not understand the reasons, but she still regulates the conflict. Studies show that even young babies show a rise in blood pressure and stress hormones when they hear their parents shouting in anger. She depends on you for everything so to her, this feels like an earthquake.

You Might Think: “I’m so angry that I don’t care if my child sees.”

Instinctively you know that it’s upsetting for your child to see you arguing, but you can’t stop yourself as your brain is now in “primal mode” – when the reactive fight-or-flight part of your brain takes over and overcomes your rational thinking.

What She’s Thinking: “What will happen to me if they break up?”

Your child believes that people who love each other should be loving all the time, so if she hears you say cruel things, she may assume you’re splitting up. Children also tend to believe the world revolves around them, so your child is likely to assume it’s her fault.

View you and your partner as being on the same team and an argument as a problem to be solved, not a contest to win.

 How To Respond

In the moment…

  1. Calm yourself There are always two problems in an argument: your emotions running out of control and the actual problem. Protect your child from witnessing the former by recognising when your reactive “lower brain” has taken over. Show your child you are calming down and say that you and your partner will talk about it later.

 

  1. Reassure her Above all, children want to feel safe, so tell your child that an argument doesn’t mean you don’t love each other. Acknowledge the disagreement, making it clear that it wasn’t her fault, even if you were arguing about something connected to her. Say, “Daddy and I were angry with each other. Now we are working it out.”

 

  1. Use the conflict to teach your child about emotions. If they seeyou make up and move on, children can learn that even happy couples disagree, anger is a normal emotion, there’s nothing wrong with expressing it, and communicating well can resolve disputes.

In the long term…

Don’t drive it underground. You may think it’s better not to show open conflict, but using passive aggressive tactics, such as the silent treatment, is more confusing to children who still pick up on the tension.

Look out for ways to sort out your differences. If a child keeps witnessing unresolved rows, it can trigger anxiety, sleep disturbances, concentration problems and difficulty with peers. After a row, write down everything that caused it, without blame or accusation, so you can talk it through with your partner calmly.

Edited article extracted from ‘What’s my child thinking? Practical child psychology for modern parents’by Tanith Carey and Clinical Psychologist Angharad Rudkin which looks at the psychology and child development for ages 2 to 7. Published by DK, £16.99 from dk.com

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