Image: Fighting parents
Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/31/2009 8:27:21 AM ET 2009-03-31T12:27:21

Quarreling couples, relax. It may be OK to argue in front of your kids — as long as you fight fair.

Experts have long cautioned that children can experience serious psychological harm if they witness their parents fighting. But a new study, published in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, suggests that children might actually benefit from watching their parents sort problems out.

“In some ways, kids benefit from seeing their parents disagreeing — and even being mildly angry,” says study co-author Patrick Davies, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “It gives them a lesson on how you can come to a mutually acceptable solution through compromise.”

The new study may ease the guilt of well-meaning parents who aren’t able to hide every dispute from their children. “I think the conclusion of this study — that not all marital conflict is destructive to children — may come as a relief to parents,” says Alan E. Kazdin, the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University. 

That’s true for Brett Moshure, a 45-year-old executive consultant in Morgan Hill, Calif. Moshure and his wife agreed early on that they would never argue about the kids in front of the kids. But every other topic was fair game.

Sometimes things get heated, but Moshure wouldn’t do it any other way.

“We actually talked about it and decided that to do anything else would cause problems for the kids,” says Moshure. “In any relationship, people are going to disagree. And if we didn’t argue in front of them, they’d get a false sense of harmony.”

The University of Rochester researchers followed 235 families with children between 5 and 7 years old for three years. Parents were asked to report on their own and their spouses’ style of engagement during a conflict. Davies and his colleagues also videotaped couples trying to resolve a contentious subject, and then the researchers rated how destructive or constructive the behavior was during the argument.

‘Conflict is inevitable’
Destructive conflict included anything from name calling, cursing and physical aggression to forms of stonewalling, such as sulking, crying and “the silent treatment.” In a constructive discussion, the parents didn’t hurl insults and often complimented their partners as they worked toward common ground.

Prior research on marital conflicts had focused on kids who were constantly subjected to nasty, heated battles. Those children were more likely than others to become aggressive and badly behaved or withdrawn, anxious and depressed.

“Because intense negative conflict has such a clear and substantial harmful effect on kids’ emotional state, 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, says Patrick H. Tolan, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

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In the new study, researchers turned to interviews with teachers as well as parents to determine the impact conflict was having on the kids. In families where parents’ interactions were more constructive, the kids became more psychologically healthy over time. They were also more likely to show “pro-social” behaviors.

“They tended to be friendly to other kids, to be empathetic when others were upset, and to show concerns for moral issues and for the fairness and wellness of others,” Davies says.

Video: Fix your parenting problems The study acknowledges that it’s not the dispute that’s the problem. In fact, research shows that couples don’t rate their happiness based on the frequency of their fights, says Tolan.

“There are couples who have lots of fights and are quite satisfied with one another,” he says. “And there other couples who never fight and aren’t at all satisfied because there is a distance between them.”

What the study suggests, but doesn’t prove, is that you can help kids by changing the way parents deal with conflict — or even that kids do better if they watch parents solve problems constructively, Kazdin says.

Children are influenced by the models presented by their parents. And they will often deal with their peers in the same way as their parents deal with one another.

Even so, parents shouldn’t assume that it’s good for kids to have a ring-side seat on every marital conflict, Tolan says. Avoid discussing family finances or the parents’ romantic relationship in front of younger children.

As children reach adolescence, you might want to include them in talks about the family vacation or which type of car to buy, Tolan says.

‘How real life works’
For Moshure and his wife, arguments can be important learning experiences for their children. “You’re modeling for your kids how real life works,” he says.

Real life means occasionally mom and dad get tired, impatient and angry with each other.

“Sometimes if I’m really tired I’ll get agitated and go off on my wife for something that is really not her fault,” Moshure says. “And my kids will say, ‘Jeez dad, you were way out of line.’ And I say, ‘You’re right.’”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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