Parents are often warned against fighting in front of their children, and it’s a good rule of thumb. In the stress of everyday life, though, following this directive isn’t quite as straight forward as it sounds.
Overall, kids do feel more secure when their parents are getting along and respect each other’s parental authority. But kids also need to know that both parents are loyal to them too and will risk confronting each other when it’s necessary.
When tempers flare, open disagreement is risky. On the other hand, silence isn’t automatically better than intervening and preventing your partner from behaving in a way that he or she will later regret.
So what should you do? How unacceptable do things need to get before you speak up? Are you undermining the other’s authority or protecting your kids?
If you’re afraid to confront your partner about his or her anger, imagine how difficult it is for your children to handle this anger when it’s directed at them. Taking on the “you interfered with my parenting” argument is a good opportunity to address the “I’m not comfortable with the way you handled that” discussion.
Before stepping in, ask yourself, “Do the children really need my help here?” If you can wait until tensions die down, then put off the discussion until you’re both less upset.
If the answer is yes, do so thoughtfully. The situation is a delicate one. How much to say will depend on what’s happened and on the level of trust in your relationship. “Honey, can I talk to you for a minute?” may be just the interruption your partner needs to regain some self-control or maybe sending the kids to their rooms will work better.
Most of the time, you and your partner should try to be on the same page. But there will inevitably be situations when that’s just not possible. Remember to protect and respect one another and your family relationships, even when you’re both furious.
Mutual respect means no screaming obscenities, no name calling, no threatening, no physical contact and no throwing things. It means not belittling, shaming or tossing in your loved one’s face something they told you in confidence. It also means not putting your kids in the middle or asking them to take sides.
Handling your anger and frustration with mutual respect can actually have a positive effect on your children. Instead of feeling frightened and overwhelmed, they see that you can work together and recover from stressful family interactions. And rather than teaching them to avoid problematic discussions, they’ll be learning how to productively cope with these emotional challenges of family life.
Loren Buckner, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Tampa, Florida. She is also author of the book, ParentWise: The Emotional Challenges of Family Life and How to Deal With Them.