Healthy con­flict can be OK for kids

Re­search sug­gests it’s bet­ter to ex­press neg­a­tive emo­tions around kids in a healthy way than to bot­tle them up

The Province - - LIVE IT! - ROSA SIL­VER­MAN

I have a con­fes­sion: I re­cently be­came so en­raged by some triv­ial do­mes­tic mat­ter that I kicked a huge dent in the kitchen garbage can. Yes, it was in front of the chil­dren. No, I can’t re­mem­ber what pro­voked such dis­plea­sure. I can’t even re­call if my hus­band was the cause, though the poor can won’t for­get in a hurry.

Ev­ery time I no­tice it, I won­der whether I have trau­ma­tized my kids. It can’t have been healthy for them to see me, their usu­ally calm and con­trolled mother, un­leash an ex­plo­sion of rage.

Ex­cept, thank­fully, it turns out it can be. New re­search has sug­gested that it’s bet­ter to ex­press neg­a­tive emo­tions around our chil­dren in a healthy way than to bot­tle them up, and this in­cludes al­low­ing them to see “healthy con­flict.”

“Chil­dren pick up on sup­pres­sion, but it’s some­thing a lot of par­ents think is a good thing to do,” says Sara Wa­ters, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of hu­man devel­op­ment at the Wash­ing­ton State Univer­sity Van­cou­ver cam­pus. “Kids are good at pick­ing up sub­tle cues from emo­tions. If they feel some­thing neg­a­tive has hap­pened, and the par­ents are act­ing nor­mal and not ad­dress­ing it, that’s con­fus­ing for them. Those are two con­flict­ing mes­sages be­ing sent.”

It’s not quite carte blanche to blast your part­ner any time they do some­thing mildly an­noy­ing. But it does mean we don’t need to stay en­tirely but­toned up ei­ther. So what is an ac­cept­able way to clash with your part­ner in front of the chil­dren and what isn’t?

Wa­ters says the best course of ac­tion is to let them see a healthy con­flict from start to res­o­lu­tion. “That helps chil­dren learn to reg­u­late their own emo­tions,” she ex­plains. “They see that prob­lems can be re­solved. It’s best to let the kids know you feel an­gry, and tell them what you’re go­ing to do about it to make the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter.”

The res­o­lu­tion she has in mind does not, dare I say, in­volve kick­ing a garbage can. So what can you do when the red mist de­scends? Faced with ris­ing lev­els of rage, ex­perts ad­vise blam­ing the sit­u­a­tion, not the per­son. That’s harder than it sounds be­cause there’s noth­ing more sat­is­fy­ing than tak­ing out your ire on an in­di­vid­ual (or inan­i­mate ob­ject).

But clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Linda Blair says do­ing so can sug­gest to chil­dren that there’s some­thing in­her­ently “not good” in the per­son at the re­ceiv­ing end. “If par­ents are fight­ing (they should not) say, ‘You’re stupid, you don’t get my point, you don’t un­der­stand.’ It (should be) ‘This is a sen­si­tive is­sue and we’re go­ing to have to find a way to work to­gether to get through this,’ ” she ex­plains.

Blair also coun­sels against say­ing some­thing is “im­pos­si­ble,” “stupid” or “too hard.”

“In­stead, say: ‘This is a real chal­lenge,’ or ‘boy, is this go­ing to make us think hard.’ That way you sug­gest the pos­si­bil­ity of res­o­lu­tion.”

Lan­guage is also cru­cial when ex­press­ing anger, and nei­ther par­ent wants to be re­spon­si­ble for turn­ing the air­waves blue. But let’s be hon­est, a bit of light swear­ing around (rather than at) your chil­dren is un­likely to leave them scarred.

In his 2016 book, What the F: What Swear­ing Re­veals About Our Lan­guage, Our Brains and Our­selves, Ben­jamin K. Ber­gen, a pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive science at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, writes that, “Chil­dren’s minds are re­silient to pro­fan­ity.”

That said, you should prob­a­bly avoid drop­ping the F-bomb, as we all know how read­ily our chil­dren pick up on and copy what we say.

Blair ad­vo­cates do­ing what­ever it takes to turn the tem­per­a­ture down, short of kick­ing the can.

She ad­vises par­ents to set an ex­am­ple by say­ing, “Let’s sit down and have a cup of tea, or do some breath­ing, or have a walk around the block.”

If you can be ra­tio­nal you will ar­rive at a bet­ter res­o­lu­tion.

And if you’re still in the mid­dle of an un­re­solved ar­gu­ment? It will en­able you to come back and of­fer up some­thing more con­cil­ia­tory and con­struc­tive. “You may say, ‘We still dis­agree, we’ve got a prob­lem. We need to find a way through.’ ”


Ar­gu­ing in front of chil­dren is hard to avoid some­times, but some re­searchers sug­gest par­ents get­ting an­gry in front of kids is not al­ways a bad thing.

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