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Disagreements are a way of life: It's inevitable that you and your spouse will verbally disagree, and just as inevitable that your child will come into contact with one of those disagreements. However, when disagreements turn into arguments that consist of yelling and name-calling, it can drastically influence your child’s well being. “Arguing traumatizes children for several reasons,” said JeaNette Goates Smith, Florida-based licensed marriage and family therapist. “Parents are often out of control when they argue, and it's scary for a child to see a parent out of control.” To reduce the negative effects on children, learn how to respectfully disagree, rather than argue.
The Difference Between Arguments and Disagreements
According to Smith, it’s important for children and parents to understand the differences between disagreements and arguments. A disagreement about a household rule is very different from an argument about enforcing these rules. “Disagreements reflect self-control; arguments lack self-control,” said Smith. “Arguments are filled with contention, yelling, name-calling, lack of respect and refusal to listen to or consider the other’s point of view.”
Disagreements, though, are just the opposite. “Parents can disagree while treating one another with exceptional respect and polite consideration for the other person’s view,” Smith said. “It’s healthy for children to witness disagreements. It teaches them it’s okay to have a voice and a mind of their own, and be a thinking individual." Arguments, on the other hand, reveal adults who do not have self-control and have not learned to disagree agreeably, Smith said. “Children have no business witnessing arguments, whereas it can be beneficial for children to witness disagreements between parents.”
Witnessing an out-of-control argument by parents may affect a child’s sense of security and development of self-control. “When parents are arguing, they say things they wouldn’t normally say or do if they were exercising self-control,” said Smith. “How can the child be sure the parent will be able to control herself when disagreeing with a child?” The harm from witnessing an argument can affect a child physically, emotionally or both, said Smith. In addition, an out-of-control parent can seriously harm the emotional and even physical well being of the other parent.
Dr. Tamar Chansky, Philadelphia-based psychologist and author of “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety,” describes arguments between parents as toxic emotional litter for their children. “What is de-stabilizing for children is when there is unresolved or unfinished conflict or hostility between parents,” she said. “Think of it as toxic emotional litter – if the parents aren’t picking it up, then the children feel scared, unsafe and responsible for picking it up themselves.”
A Child's Sense of Responsibility
When a child witnesses arguments between parents, it is likely that he will begin to play the blame game and wonder, "Are mommy and daddy fighting because of me?" As a result, your child may take on the burden of picking up the pieces. “They see the parents are upset, and if they're not taking care of themselves to calm themselves down or console themselves, then children feel burdened and responsible to cheer their parents up or fix the problem,” said Chansky. “That’s a tall order for any child. When they can’t fix the problems, they feel anxious and think the conflict is their fault, or that somehow, they're the problem.”
Even though many parents should do their best to keep arguments out of kids' range, it is inevitable that kids will overhear or witness conflicts or disagreements. “Parents don’t need to explain what the arguments are about, but explain that this is a ‘Mom and Dad’ thing,” said Chansky. “Help them know that Mom and Dad love each other and sometimes they disagree, so they have to talk it through so that they understand each other.”
It may also help your child to understand if you test her knowledge by asking, “So, whose job is it to fix the disagreements?” Hopefully, she responds with “Mom and Dad.” Reassure her that Mom and Dad can work it out and that it is perfectly acceptable to let you know that it's bothering her at the moment.
Turn Arguments into Disagreements
The demands of parenting while working out the details of life can lead to frustration. Frustration can lead to disagreements, or even worse, arguments between parents. It’s important to be proactive to minimize these conflicts. Turn hostile arguments into disagreements by learning how to listen to each other. “Trust that your partner wants to hear what you have to say, and make sure that it's a two-way street,” said Chansky. “Usually couples do have the same goals – everyone getting what they need. Remind each other that you’re all on the same team.”
When co-parenting, it’s also important to teach yourselves and your children that everyone deserves a voice. “Parents need not be threatened when their spouse merely shares a differing opinion,” said Smith. “Just because someone exercises her voice does not necessarily mean she's demanding to get her way.” Recognizing the harmful influence of arguing on a child may also help sway those arguments into respectful disagreements. “There is no need to justify a healthy discussion to a child,” said Smith. Parents can simply point out that everybody has different opinions and they have both learned to respect each other’s opinion.”