When Parents Fight: The Truth About Arguing In Front Of Your Kids

Julie Cook swore she'd never fight with her husband in front of her children. But she does. Are these rows adversely affecting her kids' mental health? It's not as simple as it seems...

when parents fight

A few days ago, I pulled out the washed, supposedly clean laundry from the washing machine and found the entire load had been coated in brown, gritty sludge.

I looked at my husband Cornel with what he calls my ‘Death Stare’ and he guiltily admitted: ‘That’s, er, my doing…’

Our son Alex had fallen in a pond at a friend’s outdoor adventure birthday party. I’d asked my husband to rinse the pond-soaked, gravel-ridden clothing first before putting it in the wash. He hadn’t. He’d put it straight in, along with my favourite linen top, grit, sludge, pond-life and all.

‘Arghh, you’re so useless!’ I shrieked.

And so ensued a row which sent my two kids, aged nine and four, running for cover.
It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.

Why did I do that? Why did I yell in front of my kids?

Cornel and I don’t have horrible blazing rows. We don’t name-call or throw things. But we do have what I called our bickering moments which can escalate to me shrieking like a banshee so the windows shake.

It’s always over something mundane, like wet towels on the floor or not taking the bins out.

Afterwards, when the kids are in bed, we’ll usually make up and laugh about it.

But then comes the guilt.

Suddenly I’ll think: Why did I do that? Why did I yell in front of my kids? Why did I nag, shout and generally belittle him? Does it affect them?

There are various studies done by psychologists into the negative effects of arguing in front of children.

One such study done by the University of York found that in divorced families, children are more damaged by the arguments that occurred during the marriage than the divorce itself.

Another study found that unresolved fighting between parents can affect children’s early development and their mental health.

Arguing can raise a child’s anxiety levels

Of course, I hadn’t set out to argue in front of my children. Before they were born, I made myself a promise: I’d never argue in front of them, raise my voice or disagree.

I wanted them to live in Waltons-like harmony, with their father and I never so much as raising our voices above a cosy drone and certainly with no yelling or shouting.

Fighting, I believed, was what ‘bad’ parents did; parents who didn’t care about their children’s emotional development.

I wasn’t going to be one of those parents.

But the trouble is, life is not that simple.

Tiredness, a long day, work worries, juggling childcare and running a house, all conspire to make parents exhausted wrecks. Add in the fact that both our children are early risers (6am is a lie in in our household) and you can understand why my husband and I can both sometimes be frazzled wrecks.

Which is why daft things, like putting some gravel-ridden, pond-fouled clothes in the washing machine can make a woman break.

And, with children always around us, it can be hard to go and find a quiet place in which to argue behind closed doors.

But then I spoke to relationship therapist and couples counsellor Lorraine McGinlay. She said that arguing is normal and healthy – but not if it involves screaming and shouting.

‘Arguing itself isn’t negative,’ she says. ‘It’s about being able to explore your relationship and set boundaries and even shows passion. They key thing is that it’s about how you argue.’

The key thing is to argue positively, teaching children how adults can listen and then reach a resolution

And what about in front of the children?

She told me that the relationship your children see is their first example they’ll follow.
‘Arguing,’ she said, ‘can raise a child’s anxiety levels.’

She added that if you yell in front of them, it’s showing them that it’s OK to ‘be impulsive rather than be rational, which can impact their relationships in later life.’


However, there was a silver lining.

She added that arguing behind closed doors can have an equally negative impact.

‘They’ll still hear what’s going on, so taking the argument underground doesn’t always help.’

Then she said the line that really stood out for me: ‘The key thing is to argue positively, teaching children how adults can listen and then reach a resolution.’

To reach a resolution..

Suddenly it all made sense. It wasn’t the arguing necessarily that was the issue, it was the fact that my husband and I would seethe silently and then make up once we’d calmed down and the kids were in bed.

The children were seeing us argue. But they weren’t seeing us make up.

In short, if we chose to argue ‘on stage’ we needed to make up ‘on stage’ too.

So, a few days later, when we had another daft bickering argument over leaving the cap off the toothpaste and when was the last time my husband cleaned the bathroom, we let ourselves bicker as usual.

But later, when we’d calmed down, I made sure I stepped forward and said: ‘Sorry.’
As our kids looked on, Cornel hugged me and said: ‘I’m sorry too.’

I looked at our kids’ expressions as we hugged. A mix of emotions passed over their faces – firstly, disgust from Alex who is nine and finds all affection between parents ‘gross’. But afterwards I was sure I saw a flicker or happiness and relief – and comfort.

THE Next time my husband does something to annoy me or makes me see red, I will try not to argue

His parents argued, yes. They were human, yes.

But they still loved each other and made up.

Now, next time my husband does something to annoy me or makes me see red, I will try not to argue. I promise.

But if I can’t manage that. If I’m tired, emotional, exhausted or generally can’t help it, I will probably give in to an argument.

But what I know I will do afterwards is make up – in front of the children.

That way, even if their parents are not perfect, our kids can see that arguments don’t mean we don’t love each other.

And I hope it shows that while we’re fuming when we fight, once we’ve calmed down we can make up too.

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