Explaining Marital Arguments to Kids
I just received this message from a parent: “My husband and I have been arguing and we are with our kids 24/7 so my guess is they’ve been noticing it. Advice?” Key point: It’s not the argument that’s scary to a child as much as no one talking to him about the argument he overheard.
A child cannot feel safe until he understands what’s happening around him. Avoiding talking to a child after an argument means that a child is left to his own devices to understand what happened; this is too much to manage, and a child will resort to self-blame to gain control.
When we give a child a story to piece things together, a child feels better because he can tell his alert system, “Now that I understand what happened and feel connected to my safe adult, I’m safe.” There are a few key elements to explaining your arguments to your child:
VALIDATE your child’s perception.
Provide a STORY TO MAKE SENSE of things.
Explain that your CHILD IS NOT TO BLAME.
Assert your CAPABILITY as a parent. Tell your child that you’re still a family even when you and your partner argue.
PAUSE, ENCOURAGE, and ALLOW your child to voice his experience.
This last part is key. Push yourself to be non-defensive, remembering that your child’s feelings about your argument are *not* an indication of how good of a parent you are.
Respond with: “That makes sense” and “Yes, that did feel scary to you, huh, you really know that… I get that” and “I’m so glad you’re sharing this with me.” Try to repair with your partner in front of your child – show a hug or some kind words or a softer tone.
Resolve with your partner to try to notice where your arguments are escalating and come up with a silly word that indicates, “Approaching danger zone; let’s discuss later when we are calmer and our kids are sleeping or outside.” I like “pineapple!” or “ferris wheel!”
Maybe take this article and email it to your partner, adding in something like, “Hey, let’s both do more of this.” Sometimes the best way to start feeling closer is by connecting about your arguments in a non-blaming way.
Try This at Home:
Approach your child post-argument and share this:
“I think you overheard Daddy and I arguing. Daddy and I have some big decisions to make, and talking about that brought up big feelings; we are working to stay calm and use kinder voices. You didn’t do anything to make us argue. Even when we argue, Daddy and I love each other. Our family is safe and you are safe; we will still watch a movie together tonight, we will still have popcorn and snuggle. What was it like for you to hear us…?“
The key elements here are: Validate and explain what happened, state that your child isn’t to blame, assert safety, check in with your child.