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Two things we know: arguing in front of the kids is a bad thing and arguing with your partner (even in front of the kids) is inevitable.
So how can you and your children’s other parent argue without running the risk of inflicting emotional damage?
1. First of all, keep the child out of it. Don’t ask your child who’s right or wrong, don’t use your child as Exhibit A in some way, and be careful to not say anything your child will assume includes him too.
Your child is naturally loyal to both parents and, of course, is equally related to both of you. Even young kids make a connection between this trait or that of Mom or Dad and their own behavior. Dissing your partner is the same as criticizing your child. Asking a child to side with you against his other parent is asking him to disparage part of himself. Don’t do it!
2. Second, remember that your partner is not your enemy. This is the person you love, the parent of your children. Even though you may be frustrated and annoyed, don’t let your own pride and rigidity get in the way of love.
Your child is watching. She’s learning what love looks like and she’s considering if your love for her might be as fragile as your love for her other parent. Demonstrate that love overcomes differences and endures even everyday ups and downs. Stop before you say things that are damaging, to your partner and to the child who overhears.
3. Be the one who stops. There is no shame in calling a halt to an argument. Doing so doesn’t mean you “blinked” or are weak. Demonstrate – to your partner but especially to your child – how to stop a fight by refusing to engage in one.
Many people don’t know how to get back to a quiet state. They don’t know how to get themselves back off the edge. If this is you, then now is the time to learn. Practice deep breathing, finding inner stillness, whatever it takes. Knowing how to defuse a situation is important for you and it’s important for your child. As University of Washington’s Laura Kastner says, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
4. If an argument erupts, fix things after. Reassure your child, who is upset even though he may not dare show it. Don’t “explain” how your child’s other parent was unreasonable and you were right – don’t put your child in the middle. Simply reassure him that the fight is over now, you still love your partner, and things are okay. And be sincere about that. Let your child see that you and your partner can be nice to each other and that the storm the child witnessed really is over.
5. Remember that if things are generally loving and kind in your household, the occasional (very occasional) disagreement does little harm and may even help children understand that all relationships require effort to make them work. There’s no need to feel horrible about a noisy argument.
At the same time, though, if disagreements between you and your partner are frequent, are violent or even just highly emotional, or if bad feelings linger like a dark cloud, then get professional help, either together as a couple or on your own if your partner won’t participate. Children who live in a state of constant upheaval may suffer long-term emotional and even physical consequences.
Arguments happen. There’s no shame in that. But how you argue does matter. Remember always that your children are watching.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.