Most of us hate having arguments, whether it is with our partners or with our kids. But minor irritations can sometimes build up, leading to blazing rows that leave everyone feeling on edge and unhappy… So what can you do to prevent this from happening? The answer is, quite a lot. And whether the tension is between you and your partner, or between you and your children, the following techniques should help you defuse the situation before it flares up into something that is harder to step back from.
So what are the effects of unresolved arguments on children?
In the heat of the moment it is easy to forget the impact on the child, and it can be hard to shield them from the confrontation. On one hand, some conflict is normal and, in fact, can provide a template for the child to learn about difficult feelings and disagreements, as well as resolutions. However, research shows that when conflict is frequent, intense and is poorly resolved, it can be damaging for the child.
Remember – children usually learn how to manage conflict by watching and copying their parents!
Witnessing unresolved arguments upsets children. Here are some of the ways in which this happens:
They feel overwhelmed by powerful emotions which they are not equipped to process.
It undermines their confidence and they may withdraw or act out.
Often they don’t know where to turn to, or how to cope with the bad feelings.
Their whole sense of emotional security may be threatened: the family should be a secure base, a safe haven.
And when parents are upset and preoccupied, they are probably not in the frame of mind to either resolve the conflict, or reassure their child. This denies the child the opportunity to learn how to repair such relationships. This is because emotional unavailability can impede the child’s emotional development, hindering their ability to form healthy relationships and regulate their own emotions.
What fires arguments between parents or important carers?
Relationships are often difficult. It is no wonder that there are family tensions. So what makes parents more likely to be argumentative? Stress at work and burnout can lead to irritability which gets brought home. Significant financial, health or other worries can predispose parents to feeling overwhelmed. And some people have been brought up themselves without ever learning how to speak up in a reasonable way and resolve family conflicts.
Resolved disagreements are likely to be protective
It is clear that mutually respectful, emotionally modulated conflicts which get resolved with an apology or a compromise solution, can take the sting out of an argument. Families where arguments get resolved peacefully tend to have children who are happier, healthier and have greater social competence. Seeing arguments being resolved not only softens the emotional impact on your child, but also teaches them how to resolve conflict with others!
What can you do if arguments with your partner are getting more heated?
- Pause! Hold on! Wait for 5 seconds – don’t impulsively get back at your partner for their behaviour. Compose yourself before speaking. If that is difficult in the moment, say you need a moment or a bit of time to calm down and collect your thoughts.
- Then when you do speak, use “I” statements, not “You” ones. Be specific – say “I find it upsetting when you don’t help clear up dinner”, “it makes me feel taken for granted” rather than general blame such as “You never help at all around the house”.
- State clearly what positive behaviour you want to see – “After dinner I would appreciate it if you could clear up while I bath the children”.
- Sit down with your partner when you’re both calm and talk about it. Stay chilled, listen before replying. Talk about the harmful effect on children, and how since you love your children you want to do the best for them, and this means not discussing hot topics in front of them. If you are worried about things getting too passionate, have arguments out of earshot – but be careful, even after they’ve gone to bed, they may be awake and hear it.
- Think about ways you might improve the background influences that are making either of you more irritable, be it stress at work, financial worries, too much alcohol, and so on.
- Talk with your child and reassure them, encourage open communication. Reassure them that parents also get upset and angry, and they try to make up and work things out. Let them know that it isn’t their fault, and tell your child that no matter what, you love them.
Prevention is better than cure
Don’t let your relationship become a poor third to children and work. Nurture it! While you probably find time to listen to your best friend when they need to vent, if your partner is irritable when they come home, you might not treat them with the same respect, just telling them to look after the kids while you go out on an errand, for example, or do something else.
Eat together. Over the evening meal, why not tell them about the highlight of your day (the boss likes your report!), recount something funny or share something you are working on, or even struggling with. This won’t be just a downer, because it’ll help your partner understand you better so you become more of a team.
If you need help, ask for it, but also ask your partner how you can help them.
Have some time alone to nurture yourself, whether it’s a hot bath with luxury oils, a walk in the park without the children, or meeting a friend.
Look out for little ways to be nice to your partner, practise the three A's: Affection, Appreciation and Admiration. Small positive comments can get a virtuous circle going and lead to a happier relationship, and also your children will in turn learn these habits: happier families have happier children.
Go out for a walk or a date with your partner. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Find something that you enjoy together (not related to the child/children)
If things are still sticky, you might consider seeking professional help, such as family therapy or mediation, which can provide a safe space for parents to work through their conflicts and develop constructive coping strategies.
The good news is that something can be done about conflict between parents, there is help available, and the damage is avoidable. If you are having this kind of conflict, then by taking proactive steps to address and resolve it, parents can pave the way for a healthier and more resilient future for their children.
Changing the culture
At a societal level, we need more education about all this at several life stages. Even before having a baby, it should be part of antenatal classes. During infancy is the time when relationships are most under stress. And if it does come to separation or divorce (sadly, 42% of marriages in the UK end this way) managing it in a calm way greatly reduces the harmful effects on children.
There is increasing recognition that promoting a harmonious home atmosphere where differences get constructively aired, gives children a great start in life.
In doing so, you set the template for your child to feel secure, have good relationships and to develop their emotional intelligence.
By taking proactive steps to address and resolve conflicts, parents can pave the way for a healthier and more resilient future for their children.