Is It Okay to Fight in Front of Your Kids?

Is It Ok to Fight In Front of Your Kids?

DrMarkhamThumbnailDr. Laura Markham
Founder of | Author

“Yesterday my husband and I had an argument at dinner time in front of the kids. My four year old daughter yelled at us to ‘Be quiet!’ …  My two year old had a tough time going to bed, which is unusual for him. Could that have had to do with mommy and daddy arguing?”

In honor of Valentines Day coming up soon, this post is about the intersection between being a parent and being a couple — specifically, how to work through conflicts when you’re in front of your children.

Conflict is part of every human relationship. If we live with children, those conflicts will sometimes come up in front of the kids. In the past, most experts reassured parents that there’s no harm in children seeing them fight, as long as the kids also see the parents make up afterwards. However, recent developments in neurological research challenge this view. Not surprisingly, it turns out that when children hear yelling, their stress hormones shoot up. In fact, even a sleeping infant registers loud, angry voices and experiences a rush of stress chemicals that takes some time to diminish.

So the research confirms what any child can tell you, which is that it’s frightening when adults yell at each other. After all, parents are the child’s source of security. When parents seem out of control, the world becomes a scary place. This “mobilization” response can make it difficult for kids to fall asleep, because the stress hormones can stay in the child’s body for hours. Since kids can’t turn to the arguing adults for comfort, they stuff their fear, and it pops out in anxiety, defiance or misbehavior.

Worst of all, when adults yell at each other, it gives children the message that when humans have disagreements, that’s the “grown up” way to handle them.

Is it ever okay for parents to disagree in front of kids?  Yes! It’s terrific for children to see adults disagree with each other respectfully, and ask for what they need without making the other person wrong. Even when tempers get a little hot, if you can resolve things quickly and your children see you repair and reconnect, you’re modeling the resilience of relationships.

So by all means, go ahead and work through differences that come up with your partner in front of your kids — but only if you can avoid getting triggered and letting your disagreement disintegrate into yelling or disrespect.

These scenarios are actually good modeling for your child:

1. One parent snaps at the other, then immediately course corrects: “I’m so sorry – I’m just feeling stressed – can we try that over? What I meant to say was…” Kids learn from this modeling that anyone can get angry, but that we can take responsibility for our own emotions, apologize, and re-connect. You’ll see your child start to apologize and course correct, too.

2. Parents work through a difference of opinion without getting triggered and raising their voices. For instance, if you and your partner have a good-natured discussion about whether to buy a new car, your child learns that humans who live together can have different opinions, listen to each other, and work toward a win/win decision – all respectfully and with affection. Having these kinds of discussions in front of kids is great modeling, as long as you agree to postpone further conversation if one of you gets triggered and it becomes a heated argument. In those cases, be sure to summon up your sense of humor as soon as things start to get heated, and close the “public” phase of your discussion with a big hug, so your child can relax, knowing that no matter how difficult the discussion, the adults are still committed to working things out positively.

3. Parents notice that they have a conflict brewing and agree to discuss it later. Hopefully, this happens before there’s any yelling — or you’ll be modeling yelling! And hopefully, you can close the interaction with a big, public, hug. If you’re too mad, take some space to calm down and then prioritize the hug in front of your child, with a family mantra like “It’s okay to get mad….You can be mad at someone and still love them at the same time .… We always work things out.”  This takes maturity, but it models self-regulation and repair. And it’s crucial to restoring your child’s sense of safety.

What if you’ve fought with your partner in front of your child, and you wouldn’t exactly call the things you said respectful? Don’t panic. The risk factor comes from repeated experiences. But you might want to view your interactions with your partner through your child’s eyes for a few days, and be sure your child is seeing his parents expressing lots more love than criticism. That’s good for your relationship, too, since the research shows that keeping a positive relationship requires seven positive interactions to make up for each negative interaction.

Are you wondering about the research by Mark Cummings, reported in Po Bronson’s book Nurture Shock? Bronson reports that as long as parents “made up” with each other after the argument, the children recovered without damage from the incident. BUT as Bronson says, and as Cummings the researcher stressed, the parents in this research were disagreeing, not yelling. And there was no disrespect or insult in these scripted encounters. Cummings has already established, with repeated research, that yelling and disrespect between parents is damaging to kids. In these studies he wanted to find out whether “plain old everyday conflict” — just ordinary non-yelling disagreements — were also a problem.

So Cummings scripted encounters like those described above, in which the parents had a difference of opinion but did not yell at each other. As it turned out, even these disagreements were very upsetting to the children who witnessed them. Luckily, when the children also saw the adults “resolving” the argument with affection, the kids were fine afterwards. Cummings and other researchers have repeatedly found that yelling and disrespect are extremely distressing to children, so simply “making up” in front of kids cannot ameliorate such negative effects.

Bottom line: All couples have disagreements, but adult fierceness is always scary to kids. Children will recover if we handle our disagreements with respect and good will, looking for solutions instead of blame. If we yell or express disrespect, it’s an emotional risk factor for children.

And of course, respect and refraining from yelling is best for our partnerships, too. Anger is a message to us about what we need. There’s always a way to ask for what we need without attacking the other person. It’s never appropriate to dump anger on another person, in front of your kids or not.

Not so easy to do? You’re right. Most of us never learned how to manage our own emotions, express our needs without attacking, and handle conflict in a healthy way.  So what does healthy conflict resolution look like? And how can you repair things with your kids if you’ve been fighting in front of them? We’ll get into these questions in our next post.

This post was originally posted at on 2/2/16

About Dr. Laura Markham

DrMarkham180tallDr. Laura Markham is the founder of and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. Dr. Laura says that earning her PhD in clinical psychology at Columbia University was just the beginning of her education as a psychologist. Becoming a mother convinced her that parents are doing the hardest job in the world, and need more support. She says her aspiration is to change the world, one child at a time — by supporting parents.

View all posts by Dr. Laura Markham here.

23 Comments on “Is It Okay to Fight in Front of Your Kids?”

  1. One can never even imagine how many ways we affect our children in a single day. You really made me think about our actions. breaks my heart to think of stressing out children and teaching them this is the norm. Its really to see where their worries and own anger come from when you think about it like this. Such an important article for all parents with little humans. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for this lovely comment, Terry! We’re so glad to hear that this article made you think about that! Thank you!

  2. I think you should step outside or to where the kids won’t hear the conversation. All the unpleasant talks should be kept away from the kids so that they feel safe and secure.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Mary. You are definitely right that parents should be very aware of making their children feel safe and secure. It’s not always as simple as fighting outside or in the other room though. Often, kids are more aware of that stuff than we might think. Still, we definitely agree with the sentiment. And as you implied, there’s a big difference between a respectful conversation and a fight.

  3. I feel very limited fighting in front of children is ok, but not out of control. I feel children need to see how to resolve conflict with healthy fighting.

    1. Yes, Shelley. It can be good for children to see how to resolve a healthy disagreement.

  4. My husband and I try to refrain from arguments in front of the kids. My husband is more guilty of it this I am. But, I have divorced parents and even now at the age of 35, I can still remember my parents fighting and I do not want that for my kids! Kids learn to love others and learn to accept love in ways they see as they grow up. It’s important for me to do the best I can to be sure my kids know how to love with all their heart and what kind of love is appropriate to accept from others .

    1. You are so right, Melanie. I love what you say about teaching kids not only how to love, but what kind of displays of love to accept from others. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Taking responsibility and owning your emotions in front of your children as suggested is a great idea. This is important for many emotions, not just anger. Showing them how you process your emotional state will have an impact on how they will process their own. Letting your child know that working through and owning all of their emotions is a wonderful lesson to have them learn.

    1. That’s very true, Amanda! Helping kids to be aware of their own emotions and learn how to deal with them is important, especially as they get older. Of course, as the post says, we don’t want to have big fights in front of our kids. But positive, gentle disagreements can be ok as long as we handle it correctly. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  6. Not ok. Kids learn by what they see and hear their parents do. Kids ultimately hear with their eyes. If you can have a calm, unheated argument about something it’s ok to have it in front of the kids, mindful of the topic.

  7. I’m guilty of this, I come to notice it & have been working at it to keep it where our children don’t have to witness it.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Deja. Yes, it’s really important not to have lots of angry fights in front of the kids. Those can make such lasting impressions on your kids. But also, it’s not good for your or your partner to have lots of fights either! Do you have calm discussions about your feelings with your partner?

  8. Kids so learn by example and their parents are number #1. Yelling is never ok. They need to see you settle your differences in a respectful and calming way. This was a great article!

  9. I am a guilty parent. I have a hard time handling my emotions, especially anger. I try to remember my children are always watching and mimicing everything their father and I do.

    1. None of us our perfect, Samantha. So don’t be too hard on yourself. In fact, if we were perfect that would set a pretty tough example for our kids too! It’d be something they could never live up to. But yes, you are right that your children will learn from the way you both act. It’s so important for us, as parents, to teach our kids by example. That means keeping our disagreements with our partners respectful and calm. And always being supportive of each others opinions. Hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful!

  10. My wife and I always try to keep our cool and discuss in the room when the kids are asleep. We do not want them to see all the negative arguments.

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