How To Turn Down The Heat On Fiery Family Arguments
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And it may be unrealistic to expect parents to never fight in front of their kids. The good news is there are ways to minimize the psychological impact on children.
As NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, it's not that parents fight but how they fight that can make the difference.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Suzanne Phillips is a psychologist in New York who works with adults and children. She says one of the most important things for parents to remember when they're on the verge of a big argument is not to try to get the child on their side.
SUZANNE PHILLIPS: Remember the child, in some ways, identifies with both of those parents so if the mother is really asking the child to be her sounding board, she robs that child from the ability to feel good about his connection with the father.
NEIGHMOND: And also don't criticize or demean the other parent. Phillips says, when you do that, the child feels as if you're criticizing or demeaning them.
PHILLIPS: Which is why we see often shame and low self-esteem in children who are caught in these battles.
NEIGHMOND: Phillips says parents really need stop before they go too far. Take for example, an argument that erupts while driving in the car.
PHILLIPS: If they're very, very heated and now they're screaming and they're moving from that to name calling - one of them has to say let's cool it for now; one of them has to remember if there's any reason to change your behavior, the children are the reason. They're in the car and there's not a thing they can do about it; they're a captive audience.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: For parents who feel they just can't stop arguing when they get angry, there are some techniques that can help. Psychologist Laura Kastner, with the University of Washington, has written a number of books about what she calls getting to calm.
LAURA KASTNER: The default position should be to say nothing; a good slogan is don't just do something - stand there; because getting to calm is the number one priority.
NEIGHMOND: And while just standing there, breathe - deeply and slowly.
KASTNER: Breathe in over five seconds; you exhale over five seconds, and you continue this for two to three minutes.
NEIGHMOND: By focusing on your breathing, you begin to regulate your emotions. And Kastner says it's amazing how quickly you can calm yourself and get your heart rate down so you can start thinking again. The more you do this, she says, the more automatic it becomes.
Another technique to soften the blow of an argument on your children is how you respond when it's over. Psychologist Suzanne Phillips says there are things parents can say to repair the sad or hurt feelings children might have.
PHILLIPS: It's really important for them to know that Daddy and I are going to be OK. Daddy and I love each other but sometimes we don't agree and we have to figure out how to disagree without yelling a little bit more.
NEIGHMOND: Even apologize, she says. That helps kids regain a sense of security. And remember, there is a larger context - most of the time, most parents aren't fighting. And if children experience lots of good, happy times, they can help balance out the bad times. And not all arguments are equal. If you have a good, constructive argument, that can actually teach children how to handle their own disagreements.
KASTNER: We want them to learn to be patient, show empathy, cooperate with others, learn negotiation skills - and all of us will suffer disappointments, experience anger, get frustrated with others and children need to see their parents cope with these things constructively so they can do the same thing.
NEIGHMOND: So, instead of getting angry, yelling and name-calling, work on techniques to make an argument constructive and resolve a problem. That will be a lesson for your children and give them the resilience and sense of confidence they need to negotiate difficulties they may face as they grow into adulthood.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.