Is it OK to argue in front of your kids?

Family Psychologist Sally O'Reilly answers this question

I heard a piece on NewstalkFM recently about arguments and relationships. A tip given was to think about arguments not as "How can I win this fight?" but rather "How can our relationship win?"
And I thought - nice. Most of us have a strong attachment to being right (is it just me?!) And so we turn disagreements into fights that we want to 'win'. We want to have the moral high ground - or we want to get away with something (which I guess is the moral slum-ground). Either way, the relationship tends to be the loser.
And research now tells us what we already guessed: how we manage conflict affects us and our kids both psychologically and physically. Plus, every conflict we engage in front of our kids is teaching them how to argue... with each other, with their friends - and with us!! Now there's a chilling thought!
So given that we can't avoid conflict completely, it seems the best we can do is to fight 'better'.
What happens to us during an argument?
We tend to dislike conflict because we want to avoid the feelings it brings up in us. So relax into your seat now and have a little (non-judgemental!) think:
How do you feel when someone disagrees with you? Enraged? Devastated? Threatened? Panicked? Do you do whatever it takes to “win”? To prove that you are right and they are wrong? ("Yes" would be common answers by the way).
This is when small arguments can turn into full-blown fights.
Understanding why you are fighting:
What often happens is we get into it over a small thing - like an untidy bedroom. If one partner rages at the other over the mess, then the raged-at partner might be scratching their head wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, it's been untidy for months and you've never complained before, so why is it suddenly "wrong"?? But what if this untidy room is the last straw? What if the mess represents feelings of being taken for granted, feeling disrespected, feeling overburdened by housework?
Small things usually represent bigger things. No-one gets upset over 'nothing'.
When we feel hurt or feel rejected we move quickly into rage. Anger is hurt and /or fear in prickly disguise. (Which is why we often burst into tears after we 'lose it'.) Raging can feel easier than stating how vulnerable we feel - we may not even KNOW we feel vulnerable! So figuring out how we're actually feeling (anger v's hurt), and sharing that information gives us a more direct route to the gentler discussion, attention, and love that we actually really need.
It takes two hurt people:
What if the other person isn't 'wrong' either? What if they too are hurt or taking something personally? What if they simply have a different opinion from yours? Maybe they had a different experience to yours, or have different, insufficient or better (!!) information than yours?
We could avoid a great deal of conflict if we could remember this:
When someone has a different opinion to ours it does not mean they reject us or want to hurt us. It's not personal. So we can afford to defend less, attack less and be more curious. There needn't be a right and wrong.
When being 'right' goes wrong.
Here's a little selection of retorts that don't usually go well for us:
  • “No, you’re SO wrong there. You just can’t see it”
  • “Jeez – I thought you were more open minded”
  • “That’s just stupid”
  • "Everyone else agrees with me so ..."
These all come across as dismissive, arrogant, manipulative and judgemental.
And the relationship loses.
Let the relationship win by dumping the 'right/wrong' habit:
When we dump our attachment to being 'right', magic happens! Here are some ideas for when things get heated:
(Warning - requires willpower!!)
  • “Hmmmmm..That’s an interesting point of view – I hadn’t thought of it that way!”  This is how we show people we are flexible and mature enough to recognise an opportunity to learn when we see one. It will soothe the other person too! Win win.
  • “Oh – that’s a new way of seeing it  – can you help me to understand how you got there?" This again shows a willingness to put aside your ego and learn more from the other person even if their idea seems bizarre and difficult for you to grasp. And you may even change your stance (it happens!).  Even if you don’t you’ll have learned something new. Win win again.
  • “I see it differently - can I show you the information I have?” This is a respectful way of offering an alternative view and giving the person the choice about hearing it – you aren’t ‘shoving anything down their throat’. You're confident in your opinion but won't force them to hear it and agree with it. You guessed it - win win!
  • If you’re tempted to start forcing it, breathe, and try this:
  • “Ah OK – so we understand it differently. OK!”, which is a handy escape hatch if you can sense your belief systems differing so greatly that you’ll never compromise on a particular topic.
If normal everyday small disagreements escalate quickly and become abusive, then it's worth asking what you are getting from being in the relationship. What are your kids learning?
Ideally, disagreements provide opportunities for growth and deeper connection. When we stop insisting that other people are ‘wrong’ and that we know better, we get to enjoy all our relationships in ways we might not have dreamt of before - and a bonus is our kids will learn just by witnessing. Win, win - again, again!
Written by
Sally O’Reilly is the Family Psychology Expert at Family Friendly HQ. She's a Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor in private practice in East Cork with twenty years’ full time experience. She has a special interest in working with teenagers. For more info contact her through her site sallyoreilly.comor on Twitter @psychosal or FB  at Sally O'Reilly Psychology & Psychotherapy.

Sally O'Reilly

Person, Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor with special interest in adolescence. Love all chocolate equally, hate all blue cheeses - equally.

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