At some point, you’ll argue in front of your little one. How you do it, and what you do after, makes a difference. Late one evening, my husband and I were arguing when I noticed our 6-month-old son. He’d been playing with his toys on the bed, but now he’d stopped. Instead, he was sitting, a toy laying lifeless in his lap, as he stared at his hands. He looked sad. I rushed over and picked him up, giving him a reassuring hug. My husband joined me. We both stopped arguing for the rest of the night, choosing instead to focus on comforting our son. But it was hard for both of us to shake the image of our crestfallen son. We knew he was too young to understand any of the things we were yelling at each other about, but it was still clear that we were affecting him with our tone, our raised voices, and our angry faces. Our son soon forgave us and went back to playing with his favorite toy, but the incident left both of us wondering whether our argument — and any others we might have — could affect him in the long term.
“Children are in tune with their parents,” says LeNaya Smith Crawford, a family therapist, play therapist, and owner of Kaleidoscope Family Therapy. “They can sense things that we may not even realize, even as infants. There have been several studies that show babies can sense when their mothers are stressed.” In fact, their ability to sense their mother’s stress begins in the womb. A showed that a mother’s cortisol, or stress hormone, is capable of crossing into the placenta and creating higher stress levels for the unborn baby. Babies exposed to frequent stress in utero were found to be born with higher cortisol levels at birth than those born to less stressed mothers. This is because, explains Chad Radniecki, a child psychologist with Allina Health, “the nervous system is developing from before babies are even born and it is impacted by the presence of stress.” A suggested that by 6 months old, babies will also exhibit stress reactions to scowling or angry facial expressions. And babies exposed to conflict can have increased heart rates, which also initiates a stress hormone response. “The words are not the trigger for the baby,” says Jennifer Tomko, psychotherapist and owner of Clarity Health Solutions, “but the tone, volume, and facial responses are more impactful to the baby’s stress response.” Babies are born innately seeking safety and building trust that their needs will be met, she continues. “Yelling or aggression is felt by the baby as being unsafe, which releases stress hormones, leaving them with a general feeling of unease.”
What are the long-term effects? According to Tomko, it depends on: the baby’s perception of safety before, during, and after arguments “If they see parents crying and upset, they’re likely to start crying,” she says. “If the baby is provided with support and a feeling of safety through being read to, sung to, held and cuddled, and played with, then the feeling of safety is likely regained within minutes.” But if those feelings of safety aren’t addressed, the outcome changes. Tomko notes, “If there’s constant or repeated feelings of danger for the child, then the stress response may be at a heightened state much of the time.” Over time, elevated stress in babies can cause separation anxiety, crankiness, and problems with sleep. But there are even more noticeable effects of continued conflict in their presence. “Once toddlers develop language skills, they mimic the language and communication styles of the adults around them,” explains Tomko. “This can include word selection, tone, and volume. Toddlers will demonstrate to you how they’re interpreting the arguments by how they speak to others while angry.” Toddlers might throw frequent tantrums, have trouble making friends, or, says Crawford, struggle to express complex feelings or ideas in a calm way. Later, children might display difficulties with concentration, have anxiety, or develop behavioral problems. For example, one 2012 study of kindergartners found that kids whose parents fought harshly or frequently were more likely to have depression, anxiety, and behavioral issues by the time they were in seventh grade. Another study, from 2015, found that too much family discord can actually begin to alter kids’ brains and make them process their emotions differently. This causes them to face more social challenges later in life. “Whether we like it or not, we as parents are role models 100 percent of the time, whether we’re at our best or our worst,” Radniecki says. And as a result, kids will mimic our relationship patterns later in life. Adolescents will model what they see from their parents in their peer relationships, Crawford says. They’ll demonstrate that “they’ve learned that the way you communicate or resolve an issue is to argue.” In adulthood, this can impact what your child sees as acceptable treatment and behavior in their romantic relationships, too.
What can you do to prevent lasting harm? First of all, know that one argument with your partner isn’t going to ruin your child forever Heck, even several arguments aren’t a major concern. And let’s be honest, we’re all going to argue with our partner once in a while — even when we try to avoid it. “Arguing and conflict in marital relationships is normal,” says Radniecki, “and the vast majority of the time, argument and conflict between parents will not have a negative impact on a child’s development.” “Serious issues generally tend to arise only for children who are subject to chronic and intense arguing and conflict,” he continues. “Children are incredibly resilient beings, and we shouldn’t put too much pressure on ourselves as parents to be perfect. Occasional arguing or raised voices will generally not be harmful.” In fact, a marital disagreement can become a learning opportunity for kids: It can teach them healthy conflict resolution While from 2016 has shown that unresolved tensions after a parental disagreement are linked to increased anxiety, depression, and social phobia, a 2017 study showed that middle-school students whose parents resolved their conflicts had better coping skills. This same study also showed that parents who expressed warmth and empathy toward each other during disagreements fostered a sense of security in their children. These kids knew that their families would be OK in the long run. A also showed that kids with parents who had constructive conflicts exhibited better social skills later, such as good cooperation with their classmates and greater empathy. Embrace that you won’t be able to eliminate all conflict: The key is just to be a good role model “All couples argue,” Radniecki says. “Conflict is actually healthy in relationships. Conflict is what helps couples move forward and grow.” He adds, “I think one of the best things we can do as parents is to be good role models of how to argue and have conflict in a healthy manner.” To do that, he recommends practicing the use of “I” statements in an argument, focusing on your own needs and emotional experience instead of the actions or behavior of your partner. For example, say “I feel hurt” or “I’m upset” in reaction to something that happened, instead of accusing your partner of doing something to you. This can keep the argument from devolving into name-calling. Recognize and label unhealthy patterns — such as name-calling, sarcasm, dismissing your partner’s feelings, or bringing up the past — and try not to repeat that behavior in a future disagreement. “Demonstrate how to manage anger,” Tomko says. “Teach your kids to have the courage to say what’s on their mind, but in a healthy way. We can get our needs met through a healthy dialogue and appropriate boundary setting.” If an argument begins to get too heated, take a break and agree to resume the conversation when you’ve both cooled off. “It is often unproductive to force ourselves to problem solve when angry. Anger is a crisis response that can cloud our logic,” says Tomko. It’s really important to let your child see you resolve things “Perhaps the most important component to ‘healthy’ conflict is repair,” says Radniecki. “Regardless of how intense an argument is, there must always be a follow-up conversation when tempers have cooled.” He continues, “I encourage the parents I work with to consider having at least part of that conversation — where appropriate of course — in front of their children as a means of role modeling healthy conflict resolution.” “I also encourage parents to take ownership of their own behavior, as opposed to deflecting or blaming the other parent,” Radniecki says. “It is OK to admit to your children that you lost your cool.” In fact, it’s good to let them see you apologize. Be sure to check in with your child after they witness an argument “Children think in black-and-white terms and are very self-focused,” Tomko says. “They may believe that they are the cause of the argument and may begin to see themselves as ‘bad’ or ‘causing everyone to be angry.’ Ask them what they like about themselves or what they’re feeling when the arguing is happening.” Validate their feelings of how difficult, scary, or frustrating it can be to see you and your partner argue. “Ensure they know that you love them,” Radniecki says, “and ensure they know that the argument was not in any way their fault.” “If couples find themselves unable to disagree in a calm way and come to an understanding or compromise, it is probably a good time to seek couples counseling,” Crawford says. She adds, “Being able to effectively and calmly communicate is imperative to a happy marriage and family.” If it’s really not working, it’s OK to end the relationship “Often, couples stay in an unhealthy, argumentative relationship for the ‘sake of the children,’” says Tomko. “This can do more harm than good.” If you do split up, make sure your child knows it wasn’t their fault and that you both still love them. Don’t involve your child in adult problems, such as new relationships, finances, or legal disputes, and never use them as an intermediary. Never bad-mouth your former partner, either. “The child will feel conflicted between their own core values, loyalty to the partner, and being the support to you,” says Tomko. “They cannot do both, which leaves them feeling anxious and guilty.” Whether you stay together or split up, the most important thing to do is make sure your child feels safe “Children who have been exposed to chronic, intense emotionality are used to unpredictability and chaos,” Radniecki says. “It’s what they become wired to expect, which puts their nervous system in a constant state of fight or flight.” He adds, “By providing children with structure, routine, and predictable caregiving practices, you can literally rewire the parts of the brain that have been negatively impacted by their exposure to stress.” Simone M. Scully is a new mom and journalist who writes about health, science, and parenting. Find her on her website or on Facebook and Twitter.