How Adult Arguments Impact Kids and What to Do

I recently witnessed a high school freshman “act out” in a gymnasium after an assembly. It was both sad and embarrassing for him. Everyone was stunned during that awkward moment and the student left absolutely humiliated.

Later that day, I got the serendipitous chance to interact with him. Perhaps because I was an outsider, he felt safe enough to open up to me. After some small talk, I asked if something was going on with him personally. What I discovered by his response was telling. He told me his parents were arguing. All the time. I could tell he felt ashamed by both his outburst that day and by their consistent conflict at home.

The arguments were getting to him.

How Arguments Affect Young People

Let me be clear, arguments between people—even parents and educators—are normal. Depending on the personalities of the people involved, they can be common. But they don’t need to be damaging.

My wife and I had a number of disagreements while our children were growing up. At first, we tried to make sure our kids never saw it firsthand. Later, however, it dawned on me that if our children never see us argue, they may not learn how to do it constructively. Imagine for a moment—parents begin to argue, and realize their kids are in the same room. They pause, walk into another room alone, and emerge later having resolved the problem. While resolution is good, their kids never witnessed how the parents resolved the conflict. They may assume one parent just overpowered the other. After all, that’s often how it happens in society today. The Washington Post says that one in five Americans have been involved in a protest over the last two years and sometimes their protests don’t get resolved.

People stay angry.

I actually believe that students need to see healthy, well-adjusted adults argue and resolve their conflict in a redemptive way. Civil discourse must first be practiced by parents, educators and coaches before the students will get it.

Research suggests that caregivers’ (parents’ and other adults’) relationship with each other plays a significant role in the child’s wellbeing, including mental health, academic success and future relationships.

Healthy arguments have little to no negative impact in kids. When parents get nasty, however, and shout at each other, attack character, give the silent treatment or withdraw, trouble can arise. Kids not only emulate it, but they internalize it.

One BBC report states that “Infants, children and adolescents can show signs of disrupted early brain development, sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, conduct disorder and other serious problems as a result of living with severe or chronic inter-parental conflict.”  What’s more, the damage can vary depending on the gender. “Research suggests that boys and girls may also respond differently, with girls at greater risk of emotional problems, and boys at greater risk of behavioral problems.”

Many couples today experience divorce. While I don’t believe divorce is good, it’s usually the couple’s inability to resolve differences that lead to it. In fact, according to the BBC, “in some cases, it is now thought that it could be the arguments that take place between parents before, during and after a separation that do the damage, rather than the break-up itself.”

Six Steps We Can Take

1. Always attack the problem, not the person.
Kids need to see that both parties are attempting to solve a problem, and may have different perspectives, but they are not attacking each other. Big difference.

2. If debating in front of young people, be sure and state the problem.
Since kids can draw wrong conclusions about their own fault in the issue or even manipulate the issue in their favor, one of you needs to declare the real issue.

3. Lay out options for solutions and demonstrate compromise.
Especially if kids see the argument forming, someone needs to offer some options out loud, so they can hear potential answers and witness compromise and grace.

4. Be sure kids see forgiveness and restoration in action.
This isn’t always possible, but it should always be our goal. Kids need to see grown adults seek forgiveness for wrongdoings and extend forgiveness to each other.

5. Show your relationship to the other adult is still strong and healthy afterwards.
Kids are harmed emotionally if they think conflict leaves a relationship permanently damaged. They must learn that resolved conflict makes people stronger.

6. Process the argument with them afterwards, when possible.
Kids can draw wrong conclusions, sometimes believing they are at fault for the conflict. If possible, explain why you disagreed and how you resolved it.

Here’s to civil conflict that leads to teachable moments for students.

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How Adult Arguments Impact Kids and What to Do