It’s a fact of life: Your little one is going to hear you and your partner fight. Whether it’s a disagreement over who is on pick up or drop off duty that day, a heated debate about whether your mother-in-law is out of line, or a knock-down-drag-out yelling match over finances – it’s inevitable that your child will be privy to some form of conflict between her parents.
Most of us will agree that it’s not a great experience for a kid. If you have memories of your own parents fighting, you might empathize with some of the feelings it brings up for your child to be in the house when things are tense.
Given that fights are a natural part of relationships, though, how do you approach them in a way that is healthiest for your kid?
Not all fights are created equal. It’s not the fact of conflict, but the type of conflict that makes the difference for little kids. For example, a recent study found that constructive arguments bode well for a child’s psychological health – kids exposed to parents debating, talking through their feelings (even when they include anger), and working toward a solution were found to be more empathetic, tuned into their peers, and socially skilled. Kids exposed to nasty conflicts, including insults, swearing, and physical aggression, on the other hand, are more likely to either act out or withdraw and show depressive symptoms.
Hashing out your difficult feelings in front of your child is better than avoiding conflict completely and ignoring each other – little kids pick up on emotional distance just as well as they pick up on anger.
Help her make sense of it. When your child sees her favorite people in the world fighting, it’s likely to activate her brain’s safety-monitoring system. Little kids are, at the core, concerned with knowing that things are secure, and a fight can be anxiety-provoking and confusing. That’s okay, as long as you repair her sense of safety when it’s over. One way to do that is by helping her process what just happened. This isn’t a long, drawn-out explanation (you know how those go over) – just think quick and basic. Say, in a confident and empathetic tone, something like:
Mom and dad were angry just now (or even mid-argument if you can). We were feeling upset and talking about our feelings with each other. You know how you tell your friends when you’re mad? That’s what we do, too.
Don’t let tough emotional snags go by without at least acknowledging to your child that they happened. It helps her file the confusing information into the right emotional slots in her brain.
Consider the balance. Relationship psychologists know that plenty of happy couples fight and plenty of unhappy couples don’t. When it comes to the overall emotional tone in the house, it may matter less to your kids that you fight off and on (again, providing the fights aren’t destructive), and more that you have plenty of good, fun, loving interactions to balance it all out. The takeaway should be that parents love and enjoy each other, and they fight – the two are not mutually exclusive.
De-escalate. If conflicts in front of the kids are destructive, give yourself a good old-fashioned time out. Have a buzz phrase for when things are getting too heated and acknowledge it’s time for one person to leave the room or take a walk. If you know there are certain subjects that get one of you really upset, avoid them until you have a moment to yourselves.
She’s not too little to be affected. I’ve heard parents wonder whether their toddler is too young to be influenced by or even remember her parents fighting, but that’s not the way it works. Even babies and toddlers read emotional cues and are constantly looking to their most trusted people to make sure all is good and they are safe. She may not explicitly remember any one outburst, but a little kid is always drawing and updating her emotional blueprint of the world – how her parents treat each other plays heavily into that.