How to Talk About When Parents Argue


by Dr. Dawn Taylor

Grown-ups argue. This is not news to kids, and it's not bad news for kids either. What matters is:

1. What we argue about.

2. How we argue.

3. How we reconcile.

4. What we teach about it afterwards.

The adult relationship in a home is the foundation of that family. The children in the family need to learn that arguments happen, and that the foundation stays strong despite (and sometimes because of) those arguments. This will teach them the skills they need to build their own family someday.

What we argue about?

Kids will have an opinion about any argument that happens while they are in the house. Don't assume, if you're in another room, or they're watching TV, that your argument is truly private. Even if they don't hear all the specifics, they will tune into your tone of voice and tension.

The two topics to drop until you're truly alone are:

Any issue you believe is not age appropriate for your children, like sex or substance use, don't discuss while they are in the house. You never need to give your kids the details of your discussion. However, you will significantly reduce their stress if you can let them know the topic. When your nosy, or worried, child asks what you were fighting about, you need to at least be able to say something like, "Mommy and Daddy are working to agree on how to spend money." The kids themselves. Kids are developmentally wired to believe that everything revolves around them. This is true at age 3 and true at age 15. If you don't tell kids what the problem is, they are so self-involved that they will assume they caused the fight. If they DID cause the fight, you need to make sure your house is completely kid-free (or at least kid-deeply-asleep-doors-shut) before you discuss it. If the foundation of the family is rocked by something one of the kids did or said or is, that child can get unbelievably stressed.

How we argue?

Do you want your child to date someone who treats her well? Someone who respects him and speaks kindly to him even when they disagree? This is your chance!

Never say something to your spouse that you would not want someone to say to your child when she or he is grown. No matter how angry or frustrated you get, avoid insults, cursing, threats. Your children will, consciously or not, look for a marriage that resembles what you have. Children learn what they live.

Be the kind of partner you want your child to pick.

How we reconcile?

How do you reconcile when you argue with your partner or a friend, or even your child? Making up is a crucial part of finishing an argument. When we don't have any closure on a difficult time or conversation, it is just festering below the surface, waiting to pop open again.

Kids need to learn how to heal from a disagreement. They don't need to see or even hear about the physical intimacy that may be a part of making up. But they do need to see the warmth and affection that follows. This helps children to know that healing happens after arguments, and also reassures them that everything is OK again.

What we teach about it afterward?

Parts of adult relationships are private. We are under no obligation as parents to have full disclosure to our kids about our thoughts, feelings or conversations. In fact, telling our kids or teens too much blurs the parent-child relationship into the land of peer friendship.

However, there are two good reasons to talk to our kids about arguing.

Hearing tension between the adults in the home can make children feel that the foundation is unstable. In addition to blaming themselves, this makes children anxious or angry. The best way to relieve that concern is communication. Also, we have a great opportunity to equip our children for their adult relationships if we are willing to teach them a little about how and why we argue.

Point out to children these simple facts about arguments to reassure them and teach them what to expect and how to behave:

We've argued before. This offers reassurance that this is not a change in the dynamic or a sign of impending divorce. Relationships take work, and sometimes that work means disagreements and making up. This is true of all relationships, and will help them move on from arguments with you, or their siblings or friends. We love each other during and after an argument. A crucial lesson! Even though parts of our conversations are private, you can always talk to either of us if you hear an argument that makes you nervous.