The Art of Arguing: Tips for Handling Parental Conflict around Your Kids

By Andrew Roffman, LCSW

Carl Whitaker, one of the originators of family therapy, once said, “Conflict should rightly be considered the fertilizer for life. While it is not always fragrant, it’s crucial for optimal growth.” How you deal with conflict is more important than whether or not you have it in your relationship. Parental conflict is a natural part of family life and as a rule ought not to be avoided. All parents (or anyone in a primary caretaking role) argue, and all children learn a lot about how to manage disagreements from hearing and observing their parents. This is simply a fact about family life and childhood.

However, parents may understandably worry about the ill effects of fighting in the presence of their children. Many city-dwelling parents lack the living space to take their disagreements out of earshot, or have young children who can’t be left unattended. And there are occasions where addressing some issue can’t easily be put off until after the kids are asleep (when parents are often exhausted as well). Finding time and space to deal directly with conflictual issues can be a challenge. Below are some general guidelines that can help.

Conflict in front of the kids isn’t in and of itself problematic. What counts is what you are showing them. Are you showing them:

  • A way of disagreeing with mutual respect?
  • How to listen and take another person’s perspective?
  • How to assert yourself without putting the other person down?
  • How to regulate your emotions and not be blaming or defensive?

If so, you are providing an invaluable model of how to engage in dialogue in the context of conflict and disagreement. In many ways, this is as important for their development as a stress-free family interaction (though plenty of those are good too!).

If you find that you can’t do any or most of the above, then it is best to de-escalate and table the interaction for another time. This can be difficult, but not impossible. It requires an agreement that either parent can call for a “time-out.”

That person is then responsible for bringing up the issue at a “cooler” time, ideally when kids are not present and both parties have had the opportunity to calm down and collect their thoughts.

  • This shouldn’t be used to avoid the topic. Using this method appropriately will build trust for both parents that important issues will not be dismissed or avoided.
  • Finally, resist the urge to enlist kids in your conflict!
  • Having to take sides in a parental dispute is highly stressful for a child, so putting a kid in this position should be strongly avoided.
  • Children have a right to love their parents equally and ought not to be asked to take sides, directly or indirectly.

What gets talked about in front of kids is, to a large extent, a matter of individual parental values and beliefs. However:

  • It is important to take into consideration a child’s level of development and individual sensitivity: e.g. an anxious child may easily misconstrue and overreact to parents arguing about money.
  • One should have clear generational boundaries about adult issues that don’t directly concern the children (e.g. parents’ sex life, most financial matters). Arguments about in-laws and other extended family relationships can also be quite stressful for children.
  • Either parent ought to have the right to indicate discomfort with the topic area when the kids are present and call for a “time out.”

Parents can have robust disagreements about a variety of topics in front of their children without necessarily causing stress and anxiety. The key here is for parents to do so in a way that shows their kids that that conflict can be managed and even resolved with love and mutual respect.