The Effects of Fighting in Front of Your Children

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

Dear Dr. Mike,

What are the effects of fighting in front of your children?

My husband and I are going through a rough patch, and I am finding it hard for me to control my temper and end up yelling at him in front of the kids. I guess I’m just nervous I have done irreversible damage.

Dear Concerned Parent,

Disagreements and arguments are a normal part of any marriage and family. However, research in this area has shown that the quality of one’s relationship and the ways in which spouses fight are the main factors that determine how exactly a child is impacted by conflict. When spouses are able to find respectful and loving resolutions to arguments, children can actually benefit from the conflict. Compassion and compromise can be experienced as advantageously learned outcomes for children after high-conflict moments.

In contrast, arguments that escalate to yelling, threats, or physical force can be very damaging to a child’s emotional stability and well-being. With repeated exposure to this sort of toxic fighting, a child can become vulnerable to experiencing depression, anxiety, aggression, and hostility.

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Results from a recent, large-scale study support the finding that high-stress/conflict fighting can be harmful to children; when children feel threatened on an emotional level, they have an increased potential to either turn inward (where their struggles may go unnoticed) or act out aggressively. These researchers found that some children even act out to distract their parents from fighting and will repeat this behavior again and again in a distorted attempt to normalize things.

Other recent research in this area has shown that angry parents and fighting, as a chronic stressor for a child, can actually impact a child’s neurology and learning/problem-solving.

Developmental research on this topic has even shown that infants as young as 6 months of age can pick up on distress among their parents (e.g., the infant’s blood pressure rises in response to the stressor). And longitudinal studies have shown that children who are raised in high-conflict homes tend to have higher rates of physical, emotional, and social problems when compared to children who were not raised in highly stressful homes.

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Regarding your situation, rather than focusing on any permanent damage you might have caused your children by fighting with your husband in their presence, I recommend that you work on improving the way you have disagreements. Children can be pretty resilient, and it is what you do now and in moving forward that is what matters most.

I think you first need to acknowledge that you are human and are thus not perfect; that while you might feel bad about your fighting in the presence of your children, your “rough patch” does not make you a bad person or parent. Most husbands and wives go through difficult times at some point over the course of a long relationship, so remember to be good to yourself as you begin to correct things.

Here are a few tips on calming things down with your husband:

Be Aware of Your Emotional Thermometer
Address your concerns with your husband at the start of a problem and not after things have upset you too much to deal with your feelings or him effectively. If you are too hot to have a rational discussion, walk away and return when cool heads prevail.

Do Not Win the Battle to Lose the War
Make deals or compromises whenever you can. Even if you feel that you are right and he is wrong, most marital problems involve perception, and, as the old saying goes, “one’s perception is one’s reality. So work toward finding a respectful and shared perspective or perception of a problem. Be careful not to right yourself right out of your marriage!

Focus on the Behavior & Not the Person
You want to both like your husband and love your husband. So, try to remember the things you like and love about him and focus your negative feelings on the behavior that is upsetting you so much.

“The Eagle Has Landed”
Use a code word or code phrase that works for you and your husband when your children are present and if things are becoming too upsetting for you as a couple. You or your husband could code the moment when needed, disengage to calm down and return to the issue when you are ready.

Conflict…with a Resolution as the New Normal for Your Children
Yelling at your husband is a conflict without a resolution; it is likely harmful to your husband and children, especially if it has become a pattern and is chronic. Instead, when having an argument or disagreement with your husband, use those moments, as age-appropriate teachable moments for your children. You might explain to your children (in basic terms) what the issue was about that was upsetting to you so much and how you and your husband came to an agreement that worked for you both as loving parents. This approach should serve to increase understanding, compromise, and compassion both in your marriage and for your children in their relationships with you and important others.

Lastly, you do not offer any information on what has upset you so much in relation to your husband. You may have every right to be upset, but yelling in front of your children is not a good solution. Perhaps you and your husband should consider couples therapy, especially if your efforts do not improve within a reasonable period of time.