I argued with a world-renowned marriage expert about arguing. I couldn't help it. All of me disagreed with John Gottman, Ph.D., when he told me, “Do not ever fight in front of kids.”
But, I told him, that’s impossible. If I include that idea in my article, parents will stop reading because it will make them feel bad about all the times they have fought in front of their children.
Understandable, he replied, but “it’s still important to know that you should rededicate yourselves to not doing this.”
For those who don't already know his work, John Gottman is a noted therapist and author who’s known his famed couples’ retreats through The Gottman Institute, which he co-founded with his wife, Julie Gottman, Ph.D.
Based on his experience, Gottman believes parents shouldn’t argue within hearing range of their children. Among other evidence as to why that's important, Gottman cites research from Notre Dame University psychologist E. Mark Cummings. One of Cummings’ studies on the subject of arguing — and he’s done many — found that kindergartners whose parents had harsh and frequent fights were more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety and behavior issues by the time they were in seventh grade.
Freaked out? Me too. Which is why I asked my teenager if she agrees with Gottman about parents never fighting in front of kids. Her reply: “No! How am I going to learn from you if I never hear you argue and make-up? Besides, you’re human.”
That comforts me but I still see Gottman’s point. Hoping he'll help me learn how to avoid (or, at least, limit) arguments with my husband in front of our children, I called him up. Here’s what he had to say.
OK, I know fighting in front of my kids isn't good but how bad is it really?
When parents are fighting, it’s physiologically traumatic for kids. Their blood pressure increases (even in very young babies). If you play a tape of two adults fighting who are not their parents for a child, even that has a [negative] effect. Parents fighting really results in them having a lot of anxiety. Countless clients of mine have memories of parents fighting. It really is an early trauma.
Children have this magical way of thinking where they take responsibility for things. It’s crazy, but if the parents are fighting, they think it’s really their fault.
How do your children’s ages play into this?
I have a Star Trek theory [for this]. The show’s three main characters represent different phases of childhood development. Dr. [Leonard] McCoy is totally emotional and impulsive, jumping through time warps to save people. This represents early childhood. If someone takes something from a child, they say, ‘That’s mine! I want it back! That hurts!’
Spock isn’t totally unemotional; he had a human mother and a Vulcan father. He knows emotions but is almost purely rational. This developmental stage starts at age 8 to 11. During this stage, kids act like they had an emotion appendectomy: ‘Go ahead and take that. It doesn’t bother me. You can’t hurt my feelings.’ Children become aware that there is a power hierarchy among kids that they have to manage.
During the third stage, kids are much more like Captain [James T.] Kirk, who integrates emotion with reason. That’s what adolescence is all about: understanding your limitations and all of your various selves. Teens are more able to handle parents arguing. They can understand you can hate your friend one day and love your friend the next day.
So it's OK to fight in front of teens?
No, but you certainly can take Cummings’ recommendation to role play an argument that you have already resolved so you can regulate the emotion. Teens can benefit from seeing a role play of a couple calmly, respectfully and logically working out an issue they have already resolved. Then they can see you arguing and coming to an agreement. You want to make the demonstration pretty mild.
Any suggestions on where to argue if you shouldn’t in front of the kids?
It’s not that you shouldn’t argue; you should argue out of acoustic range of the children. Very early in the argument, say, ‘This isn’t going quite the way I would like it to go’ and physically move yourselves. Go to a park or some place other than the house so there is acoustic shielding from the children.
If parents do fight in front of their kids, is there a way they can make-up later that helps address some of this trauma?
Cummings’ research shows kids want to see a kiss and a hug when parents make-up; the more kissing and hugging, the better. Up until age 11, children don’t understand the verbal making-up; there has got to be a hug and a kiss, too. Physically make-up in front of them. Say, ‘We were angry at each other and we’ve talked about it and everything is fine now.’
This story originally published in June 2017 and was updated in May 2019.