It's inevitable: occasionally you will fight with your spouse in front of your kids, and most likely, you'll feel guilty about it afterward, especially if you have an emotionally aware kid like mine. "Mommy, why you and daddy so ang-wee (that's "angry" for those of you that don't speak toddler)?" my sweet 3-year-old son recently asked me. "Let's all be nice and happy, OK?"
If only life was that easy, buddy. But put together two stressed-out, exhausted parents and some superdemanding kids, and peace can't always be expected and typical, no matter how much we wish it was. Although conflict is a part of marriage and parenting that most of us can't avoid, we don't have to feel guilty about arguing in front of our impressionable children. In fact, fights can be valuable teaching lessons for our kids — when done the right way.
Although no one's perfect (admittedly, my potty mouth is in full force when I'm mad at my husband), here's what to strive for if and when you find yourself arguing in front or your kids.
- Keep it fair. During an argument, we can tend to say mean and hurtful things, but try your best to fight fair. Name-calling, threats, screaming, and physical interactions should be totally off limits, as should fighting about topics that are too adult or complicated for little ears, like sex, alcohol or drug abuse, or the actions of other family members whom they regularly interact with. Try to use feeling words, like "I feel frustrated because . . ." instead of accusatory ones.
- Let them witness the resolution, too. Think about it. Kids regularly see their parents fight, but we often wait until they're asleep or away from us to make up, preventing them from learning the most important lesson about conflict: it can be resolved. Let your kids see you make up and you'll not only make them feel more confident about your love for and commitment to one another, but they'll also see how a healthy debate works, with both parties negotiating, compromising, and reaching a solution. It's a lesson that will serve them well as adults.
- Follow up with a one-on-one conversation. Both you and your partner should always talk to your kids about the fight after it's over, especially if they weren't around for the resolution. Express that you're sorry that they had to witness it, but explain that it's normal for parents to argue and that it doesn't mean you love each other any less. Having this conversation one-on-one makes it more casual, while sitting your child down with both parents might escalate their anxiety if it seems too formal or preplanned.
- Teach them that no one is perfect. We all mess up, and we're certainly apt to do so during a fight, but you can turn your worst moments into teachable ones for your kids. It's important for them to learn that making mistakes is part of being human and that it's important to take responsibility for wrong actions and apologize for them. Role modeling the behavior will help them know what to do when they make their own mistakes in the future.
- Follow a negative interaction with a positive one. Take a family walk, head to the park for a game, or have a fun dinner out, but make sure your kids see you and your spouse interacting in a positive, loving way. Having some quality time will help you all get back to a happier place.