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How parents argue affects kids—sometimes in positive ways

The nature of any relationship has ups and downs, since it’s likely impossible to agree on everything all the time. Sometimes being a partner is more stressful than being a parent, so it’s also inevitable for children to sense tension between their parents every now and then. And while conflict isn’t inherently bad, how you manage it matters, especially in front of your children.

Research suggests we keep kids out of adult arguments as much as possible, and when an issue does come up, dealing with it in a constructive way can turn a negative into a positive for kids.

“The message is clear: Even low-level adversity like parental conflict isn't good for kids," says Alice Schermerhorn, an assistant professor in the University of Vermont's Department of Psychological Sciences and the lead author of a new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

But the one thing parents can do to avoid those pitfalls? Demonstrate how to reach a positive conclusion to the argument.

For the study, researchers divided a group of 99 pre-teens into two groups based on how much conflict they perceived in their parents’ relationships. The kids were then shown pictures of couples having happy, angry or neutral interactions. They found that the children from low-conflict homes were correctly able to interpret the tone of the pictures, but the children from higher-conflict homes had trouble placing the emotions of the people in the neutral photos.

“If their perception of conflict and threat leads children to be vigilant for signs of trouble, that could lead them to interpret neutral expressions as angry ones or may simply present greater processing challenges,” says Schermerhorn, adding the results also showed the shy children were more sensitive to these disputes.

However, there is one significant catch: Rather than pretend conflicts don’t happen, if parents resolve heated discussions in ways that display positive communication skills, children can benefit.

“No one can eliminate conflict altogether," says Schermerhorn. “But helping children get the message that, even when they argue, parents care about each other and can work things out is important.”

Another recent study found this is true even for very young children: According to findings published in the Journal of Family Psychology last year, constructive conflict management demonstrates calmness and respect in ways that toddlers pick up on.

“Not all conflict is bad—it's about how you manage it," says University of Arizona researcher Olena Kopystynska. "Given that children are going to encounter conflict out there in the real world, exposure to some conflict can be beneficial. However, it's really how parents handle that conflict that sets the tone for how safe children feel, and may further promote similar conflict management behaviors for when children are confronted with conflict of their own.”

In fact, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology found the 5 to 7-year-old children of parents who argued constructively showed greater empathy toward their classmates during a three-year period.

As for how to achieve those constructive arguments, Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW, previously wrote for Motherly it may help adults to take three steps:

  1. Diffuse your defensiveness: Think to yourself, “I wonder what pain is under their anger?”
  2. Turn the flashlight to yourself: Ask, “I wonder why I’m feeling so agitated?”
  3. Cultivate a sense of curiosity: Think to yourself, “I wonder if we can grow together through this?”

Just as children’s spats with each other can actually be good learning examples, so too can be the disputes we parents have. The key is just making sure love and respect are central to the conversation—and if that’s too hard, it’s best to save the talk for after bedtime.

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