Good Fight: Showing Children How to Fight Fair
By Kathleen Finnegan, LPC
What does one say to parents about fighting in
front of their kids? “Don’t do it?”
Then what!? Everyone fights; it’s the nature
of survival. There is simply no such thing as
a conflict free-relationship. Yet many people
wander into relationships without a clue about
HOW to fight for themselves. Many times we are
taught that fighting is dangerous or useless:
dangerous from the trauma of growing up in an
aggressive family or useless through the frustration
of being raised in an over-controlling environment.
There are even those who claim they don’t
know how to fight because they never witnessed
their parents in conflict.
Psychologists and counselors have long been aware
of the ill effects fighting has on children. Verbal
conflict (demeaning put-downs on the other partner
or sudden outbursts/threats) is toxic to a child’s
emotional and physical well-being. In a six-year
government study involving more than 2000 families,
stress levels of children were measured while
watching their parents fight. It was determined
they reacted with an increased heart rate, faster
breathing and more sweat gland activity. The results,
say the statistics? “These children get
sick more frequently, tend to become more aggressive,
have more depression and anxiety and don’t
sleep as well as children from lower conflict
In my own work with families I see children whose
continuous exposure to battles desensitizes them
to aggression. They consider name-calling, put
downs, physical fights and cynicism as a normal
way of interacting with family members and peers.
I also see the wounds go deeply into the minds
and hearts of children as they develop a pattern
of rescuing others and ignoring their own needs
and feelings. Without help, these patterns of
either aggression or victim-like behavior will
continue into adult years and will undermine the
individual’s efforts to live an empowered
life with others.
What about the effects of children who never or
rarely witness a disagreement or bickering between
parents? At the other end of this spectrum, there’s
the child who does not know how to assert hisself
or herself at all. Often these are the children
who don’t know how to stand up to peer pressure,
are afraid of conflict and become overly anxious
when they enter a new situation. They also come
to believe the only time a friendship or group
situation can be a happy one is when there is
never a fight or disagreement.
When is it a “good fight” for children
and parents? When is it productive with a positive
outcome? Watching parents argue can be scary for
children, but seeing them resolve their difference
in positive ways can offer a great deal of security.
If children can learn that couples and families
can stay together, even through heated times,
they will have a much easier time in their lives.
As individuals, they will be able to assert themselves
with their peers. As partners, they will know
they can disagree about something and continue
to love one another. As parents, they will be
better able to cope with the challenges their
children will bring to them.
Conflict happens in the world and is realistic
in relationships. It is important to teach children
about anger. Children witness violence in life
and through the media several times a day. Through
witnessing “the good fight,” children
can learn it’s okay to feel angry, but it’s
not okay to hurt someone. They can recognize angry
feelings in themselves and others and learn how
to control impulses. They can learn self-calming
techniques and communicate angry feelings in a
positive way. They can see the rewards of problem-solving
and, most importantly, learn how to remove themselves
from a violent situation.
Now that the positive effects of “fighting”
in front of children have been established, here
are some guidelines or some of the “do’s
and don’ts” of arguing in front of
Do sit down with your partner, during peaceful
times, and talk about how you want to handle disagreements.
Do take some time to determine the following
five things when you begin to experience hurt
or angry feelings:
1. What just happened?
2. How do I feel about it?
3. Do I need to do or say anything about it?
4. If so, what do I need to do or say?
5. Do I need to schedule a time to talk?
Don’t argue about the kids or finances.
(Children will feel responsible or frightened
about being impoverished).
Do express yourself using “I”
statements: “I felt scared when you said
you were leaving. I thought you might not come
back.” or “I felt unappreciated when
you didn’t comment on the dinner I prepared.”
or “I feel angry when you follow me around
when I say I want some space.”
Don’t continue the argument when
blaming takes over.
Do listen to one another and, to prevent
making assumptions about what the person meant,
clarify to your partner what you heard he or she
said before reacting.
Don’t continue the fight when you
see the children are getting stressed, are trying
to break it up directly or acting out.
Do check for rapid breathing and take a
“time out” when you feel yourself
Don’t end the fight without the children
seeing you come to some kind of agreement (even
if it means continuing the argument at a later
Do let the children see you make up.
Don’t argue loudly in the same room
as infants and toddlers.
What children can learn from conflict is priceless.
It will affect them throughout their entire lives
and in every aspect that involves relationships.
Handled well, it means greater understanding,
appreciation and respect for one’s self
and for others.
When you have years of learned behavior from your
family of origin, these concepts will take time
to put into practice. Be kind and gentle with
yourself in the process of trying and failing.
This too is setting a positive example for your
children . . . to continue loving oneself through
it all. If you need more support in your relationships,
there is help for you. There may be a trusted
friend or family member you can confide in. If
the problems seem overwhelming, contact a professional
in your community. You don’t have to struggle
Kathleen Finnegan is a Licensed Professional
Counselor. She holds a Master of Arts degree in
transpersonal counseling from John F. Kennedy
Univ. Her undergraduate work includes a degree
in early childhood education. She worked for Head
Start for ten years and has spent over ten years
providing full-time counseling services to children,
adolescents, individuals and families. She is
a member of Ashland Counseling Associates, a state-licensed
mental health facility in Oregon. For more information,
contact Ms. Finnegan at (541) 488-2926 or firstname.lastname@example.org.