Why Fighting in Front of Your Kids May Be Good for Them

Why Fighting in Front of Your Kids May Be Good for Them

New research shows kids who witness their parents’ arguments might benefit as adults.


By: Leah Maxwell

It seems like a no-brainer that parents should avoid fighting in front of their kids, but new research suggests that the effects of witnessing marital conflicts as a child might not be all bad. A study by researchers from Rollins College and Pennsylvania State University showed that people who were exposed to intense verbal conflicts at home as children were better able to handle intense verbal conflicts within their own romantic relationships as adults. Researchers measured the amount of cortisol -- the “stress hormone” -- released during verbal arguments between couples and found that those who had childhood exposure to similar conflicts released less cortisol during their own heated discussions. So does that mean you should fight in front of your kids more often? Well, not necessarily.

Although the study, published in the journal Human Communication Research, found that adults who regularly witnessed verbal arguments as children were better able to handle the stress of arguments in their own later relationships, the experience can have negative effects that outweigh this particular benefit. “Research has demonstrated varying results on children and exposure to parental conflict,” says Christine Weber, a clinical neuropsychologist not associated with the study. She goes on to say, however, that “arguing in front of children can be healthy, depending on how it is done.”

It makes sense that someone who considers verbal conflict an expected part of normal, happy marriages will be better emotionally prepared to handle it in his or her own relationships, but it’s important that the conflicts children are exposed to serve as examples of responsible, constructive disagreement.

“Children who never see parents argue may take with them into their adult years an artificial model of an intimate relationship,” says Weber. “They may not understand that arguing and expressing negative emotions are normal and healthy in a committed relationship.” In this way, parents who let their children see them fight are showing them it’s OK and not something to be ashamed of, avoided, or hidden from others. “Unresolved struggle eats away at the family soul,” says Susan Smith Kuczmarski, EdD, the author of three books on parenting and families. With that in mind, it’s important to address disagreements, rather than sweep them under the rug.

“It’s good for children to know that in a healthy relationship, partners don’t ignore their differences [but] attempt to work them out,” says psychologist Carolyn AlRoy. She adds it is also important that parents act out their anger constructively rather than destructively by talking openly about their feelings while still being respectful of the other person. A complete absence of fighting can be as unhealthy for children as exposing them to too much conflict, says AlRoy, and the key to finding that balance is having parents ask themselves what their words and actions are teaching their kids in these fraught situations. “This is an opportunity for parents to model resolving conflicts in a healthy way,” says AlRoy. “[Use] it as an opportunity to become emotionally closer.”

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A big part of keeping marital conflicts within the kid-friendly zone is in how parents handle their resolutions. Kids who witness the positive outcomes of arguments rather than just the unhappy beginnings and middles, when tensions are especially high, will be less likely to suffer negative effects. “If conflict results in a lack of resolution or detached love, keep kids out of the picture,” advises Smith Kuczmarski. In situations where children aren’t around to witness the resolution in person, parents should remember to address the issue in a way that makes their kids feel secure. Children aren’t worried about the details of the fight so much as they worry about the fate of their family, so don’t forget to reassure them that the issue has been handled, their family is intact, and their parents still love each other. Kids who witness fair fighting that produces workable solutions will grow up better able to handle their own conflicts in healthy, constructive ways.

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For couples who do fight in front of their kids, Smith Kuczmarski also suggests establishing guidelines and ground rules to keep things civil. She says if parents can’t fight with compassion, selfless listening, and a willingness to reach out to the other person, they might be better off keeping their conflicts behind closed doors.

Do you have rules for fighting in front of your kids?


Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.

Image ©iStock.com/LeoGrand


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