When I spoke recently to a group of preschool parents on the topic of positive communication, one of the dads raised his hand:
“So if my wife and I are committed to communicating positively with each other and our kids, we should avoid fighting in front of them, right?”
Conflict has a bad rap in our culture, especially when it occurs between parents. It’s not unusual for us to avoid it, or shut it down as quickly as possible when it erupts, or assume we’re on the path to divorce if it’s a regular occurrence.
Truth is, not only is conflict unavoidable, it’s an important component of human relationships, romantic and otherwise.
Which is why I gave that dad the most straightforward response I could muster:
Yes and no.
Yes, there are some styles and topics of conflict that it’s best to avoid in front of our kids. No, it’s important to disagree in front of them, if we do so constructively, because that will teach them what positive conflict looks like.
Here’s a brief distinction between destructive and productive conflict:
Verbal and physical aggression certainly constitute destructive conflict, but they’re not the only forms. There are fight-topics and approaches to those topics that are also, ideally, off-limits it terms of exposure to our kids: avoid arguments about the kids, including disagreements around discipline, and don’t put your child in the middle (or let kids put themselves in the middle).
Destructive conflict also includes fights that aren’t productively resolved, those for which no apologetic, conciliatory or respectful words or behaviors are expressed, those without a genuine agreement to disagree, or a plan to revisit the topic at a later date, or other techniques designed to positively wind down the disagreement.
Constructive conflict, which is great for kids to witness, overhear or just plain sense, include disagreements where parents come to a resolution, in some instances a compromise, but without lingering resentment. Apologies, affection, a respect for differences, an understanding (though not necessarily agreement) of each other…all of these represent conflict at its best.
What to do if the first round was pretty destructive and your kids were home? Here’s one suggestion:
Make an agreement with your spouse to revisit the topic. Further agree that you’re going to approach it calmly and that if either of you senses tension escalating, you’ll suggest a 5 minute break (or longer, if you’re really riled) to calm down. Keep at it until you find a way to close the conversation positively, which doesn’t mean you’re in agreement, but you feel respectful and, hopefully, possess increased understanding of each other’s perspectives.
You can do the above in front of your kids or behind closed doors. If it’s away from them, a great way to close the loop–i.e., a way to show them that the conflict’s been resolved–is to go and speak to them together.
Acknowledge that the way in which you fought about the subject at first was not helpful, but it’s natural for people to get mad at each other and, even, say hurtful things. If your kids are small (including if they’re infants and won’t understand the specific details you convey), consider acknowledging that your fight might have been scary for them.
Then, let your kids know that you’ve revisited the issue and resolved it, are feeling better about it, or each other, or however you want to phrase it. The less detail the better with small kids; what will have the most impact is the calmer energy between the two of you.
But if you’d like to let older kids in on your conflict resolution strategy for that fight, feel free to do so, as it will give them a specific example of ways to navigate a disagreement.
Another approach is to increase awareness of our conflict styles and try to avoid those that are most destructive. Check out my piece on conflict-styles for more information.
However we “do” conflict with our spouses, as long as we resolve disagreements positively, as long as we productively close the loop on an argument, even one that escalates beyond our own, and our kids’, comfort-zones, we’ll be modeling constructive conflict. Doing so will serve our children throughout their lives, and help our relationship satisfaction with coparents in the process.