Calming Arguments in Front of Children

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Reader’s Question

My husband and I have been together 27 years and married for four years. Our first son was born one month after we married and our second was born two and a half years later. My husband and I argue often, and I am concerned it is affecting our three-year-old.

I was raised with shouting and hitting. I know it’s wrong, and, until recently, I had successfully stopped these being my default, go-to tools in arguments. My husband knows that my normal-meter is skewed when it comes to my handling of conflict so we employed techniques to help manage our issues in a calm manner. Prior to the boys, if we argued we would give each other space to calm down and reflect on the issues, then regroup and resolve. Since the boys, my husband will not give me space, takes no responsibility for his part in the argument, and offers no apologies. He has also begun gaslighting me. Given my past, I especially do not want to lose my cool with my children, and it is almost as though every ounce of patience is used in dealing with my two spirited boys which leaves none for my husband. It feels as though he is pushing every single button I have, knowing that I am operating on zero and have had no more than 3 hours of sleep at a time for the last 8 months. I am mortified to admit that I have reverted back to my old ways of shouting and hitting. I lose it. And my husband has begun losing it. And we have done so in front of our precious little boy.

Our three-year-old is struggling with self-esteem and it breaks my heart. Has this come from witnessing our aggressive arguments? He is a bright, happy, sociable little boy in the main, but he won’t do anything out of his comfort zone — saying “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to” even though his behaviour indicates that he really would like to. I want my little boys to believe they can do ANYTHING. But my little boy says “[he] can’t.” His day care recently mentioned his self-esteem saying that if he does a piece of artwork he isn’t bothered by it. It’s as though he doesn’t take pride in what he does. He refuses to dance, saying he can’t, although I have seen him when he thought no one was looking. My husband and I praise him regularly (not just for the end result, but for the trying and trying).

We are both deeply ashamed that our little boy witnessed these bitter arguments and we are both resolved to doing what is necessary to ensure this never happens again, to enter into further couples counselling and — most importantly — to work on restoring our little boy’s confidence. These are not the spouses or parents my husband and I wish to be. These are not the role models we wish for our boys.

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What are our steps from here?

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like you are truly running on empty with very few (if any) opportunities to refuel. Parenting young children is difficult enough, but combining sleep deprivation with the added stressor of marital conflict can be overwhelming. Even those of us with the best conflict-reduction skills get short-circuited by our emotional reactions when we are so overloaded and sleep-deprived.

It is difficult to know what might be going on for your three-year-old, if anything. You observe that he is mostly “bright, happy and sociable” — which are the behaviors and traits I would continue to notice and encourage. Many three-year-olds couldn’t care less about the art they have completed: they are too busy moving on to their next activity. There is wide variability among three-year-olds, and what is typical for one does not translate into “normal” for another. He may also just not feel like dancing when asked, and that’s perfectly normal. Allowing three-year-olds to explore their environment through play at their pace is the best way to foster their sense of agency and “self-esteem.” Continue to praise his trying, and follow his interests.

What I mostly hear, however, is that you would really like to find a way to stop arguing in front of your children. Being aware of these arguments and your desire to shield your children from them is the most important step in making changes. It sounds as if you and your husband know what works, but are having difficulty employing your learned strategies when you are harried and trying to care for small children. One figure in research-based marital therapy, Dr. John Gottman, suggests that conflict cannot be resolved, only managed.

To help manage conflict more easily, I often encourage couples to post a list of quick phrases, or “repair checklists,” on their refrigerators. When they begin to feel flooded or overwhelmed with anger/conflict, they can point to one of the phrases. From what you’ve described, a few of Gottman’s I Need to Calm Down phrases may be a good place to start:

  • “I need things to be calmer right now”
  • “I am starting to feel flooded”
  • “Can we take a break?”

Perhaps you can add to this list from your previous toolkit that has worked for you. If you have the time and energy to do more counseling together, it could also be a helpful “tune-up” for you and your husband. However, if it feels like another obligation for you, that may be counter-productive. I’m hearing you say that you (understandably) need more time and space to yourself. Perhaps you can reach out to a relative or hire a caregiver to allow you to take an hour or two for you to sleep, go for a walk, see a friend, or find another relaxing activity that gives you conscious, mindful relaxation.

I would also recommend a parenting book to you that Gottman has co-authored, entitled Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. It may give insight into your parenting styles and may provide some ideas for you to help foster your children’s emotional health.

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