It's not news that kids who grow up in violent homes are more likely to become depressed, antisocial or violent themselves. But new research shows that children who are exposed to high levels of family discord or experience physical abuse share a pattern of brain reactivity similar to that of soldiers in combat. While your home may not be turbulent, even run-of-the-mill fights with your partner may be stressful for little ones to witness. When this stress is sufficiently severe, it is “likely to have a measurable effect on their brain development,” says Eamon McCrory, Ph.D., coauthor of the study from University College London.
Yikes. So should we Botox all the emotion out of our faces? Please. When your main squeeze doesn't tell you about the impromptu in-law visit, you have our permission to squabble. Just fight the right way.
Let it out
Holding in your anger or disappointment for the sake of the kids isn't the best idea. “Unspoken tension can be more stressful than actual fighting,” says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and family counselor in New York City. “Kids will fill in the blanks of what you're not talking about and will let their imaginations run wild.” It's best to address the issues now before the silent treatment sets in.
Your kids will face their own share of sandbox spats and playground throw-downs, so think of your own skirmishes as teaching opportunities, says Dorfman. Model appropriate behavior: Avoid demeaning words, express your feelings (“I feel frustrated because…”), and keep your hands to yourself.
Arguing in front of the kids can teach them an important lesson: People can disagree and still remain connected. “Disputes don't terminate relationships,” says Dorfman. Talk to your children about it. Tell them “Mommy and Daddy fight sometimes, but we always love each other and we'll work it out.”
If your kids saw the fight, make sure they see a reconciliation, too. And don't try forcing a superficial one for their sake. “Kids will pick up on that, too,” says Dorfman.