Study Tells Parents: Let Your Kids See You Fight

April 04, 2009 08:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
A new study says fighting in front of your children may not be as destructive as experts once thought. Some quarrels may even provide developmental lessons.

Arguments Teach Conflict Resolution

In a study published in the Journal of Child Psychiatry, researchers at the University of Rochester followed 235 families with children between the ages of 5 and 7. Over a three-year period, parents completed surveys detailing their argument style, and that of their spouse.

Researchers also videotaped couples as they worked through a provocative issue, and calculated to what degree their discussion was constructive or destructive.

In the past researchers looked at “nasty, heated battles,” which caused children to act out, through aggression, anxiety or reclusiveness.

However, Patrick H. Tolan, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois in Chicago, noted, “Researchers have overlooked the idea that conflict is inevitable in relationships and that resolving that conflict is an important part of having and maintaining relationships over time.”
Based on interviews with teachers and parents, researchers found that the children of parents whose behavior was rated as constructive showed “pro-social behaviors.”

Patrick Davies, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, said these children were friendlier and more empathetic. He added, “[They] show concerns for moral issues and for the fairness and wellness of others.”

Davies summarized, “It gives them a lesson on how you can come to a mutually acceptable solution through compromise.”

In an article last year, Parenting magazine addressed “6 Parenting Myths,” citing the advice of Karen Reivich, Ph.D., a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. Reivich’s advice is consistent with current research.

“When you argue in front of your kids, it’s important to fight fair. Instead of shouting ‘You’re a lazy slob!’ say ‘It really bothers me when you don’t take out the trash.’ Take issue with the action, not the person,” she said.

However, if a fight becomes too heated or seems unending, Reivich said it’s best to continue it when the children aren’t present.

Video: Moms talk about fighting in front of their kids

Asha Dornfest, a writer for Parent Hacks, believes there are benefits to fighting in front of your child. After an argument with her husband, she said, “[My daughter] got to see us working it out and actually laughing about it later.”

She added, “If you’ve never seen anyone get angry with each other, how are you going to know how to deal with it when you grow up.”

Opinion & Analysis: Your Child's Reality

Responding to MSNBC’s article about the Rochester University study, a commenter named Steve argued that we shouldn’t shield our children from reality. He recalled an incident where his young daughter, now grown, witnessed a fistfight between two men on the street. Another friend, who had her two daughters in tow, was sad that they had seen the violence.

Steve, after some reflection, disagreed. “What will happen to them when they face the world for themselves? Could you imagine walking out your door one day into a world you’ve never see before? …I decided that day that I should let my daughter … see the world as it is.”

Reference: Fighting the "good fight"


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