How To Turn Down The Heat On Fiery Family Arguments
All parents are bound to disagree, argue or even raise their voices with each other.
But psychologists say parents can minimize the negative impact of their arguments on their children. It's just a matter of using a few simple techniques to turn down the heat and repair the damage after it's over.
Psychologist Suzanne Phillips at Long Island University says one of the most important things for parents to remember when they're on the verge of a big argument is not to involve the child.
"Remember, the child in some ways identifies with both of those parents," Phillips says. "So if the mother is really asking the child to be her sounding board, advocate or collaborator against the other parent, the child loses the opportunity to feel good about the other parent and is put in a very conflicted situation."
Even little swipes and criticisms can be harmful. Because kids identify with their parents, they interpret negative characterizations as also aimed at them. Phillips says this is why we often see "shame and low self-esteem in children who are caught in these battles."
"Remember who it is you're arguing with before you open your mouth," says clinical psychologist Alan E. Fruzzetti at the University of Nevada, Reno. "When we get negatively charged, our cognitive performance goes down, and we often miss the larger context and start arguing as though our loved one is our enemy."
Even in the heat of discourse, it's important for parents to remember why they're there in the first place. "You have to remember, 'This is someone I love,' " he says.
For parents who feel they just can't stop arguing when they get angry, University of Washington psychologist Laura Kastner has written extensively about what she calls "getting to calm."
"The default position should be to say nothing," she says. "A good mantra is: 'Don't just do something, stand there.' "
While standing there, you can begin to regroup, she says. Breathing exercises can help parents "get to calm."
This is how it works: Breathe in deeply over five seconds, exhale over five seconds, and repeat this focused breathing for about three minutes. Move away from the area of conflict to do this. Get up from the dinner table and go to a corner of the room.
If you're in the car, Kastner says, "stop talking, grip the steering wheel, and engage in the breathing exercises" before returning to the conflict.
This should bring down your heart rate, reduce the release of adrenalin and stress hormones, and put you back in a "zone for rational and even optimal thinking," she says. The best part, says Kastner, is the more you do it, the more automatic "getting to calm" becomes.
For parents who have the time, Kastner suggests a course in mindfulness. "It's the gold standard," she says. "It trains your brain for full relaxation with the capacity to focus your attention on the present moment without judgment." It takes a lot of practice, but the benefits are big.
What happens if you still fail to slow down the dispute? Do damage control when it's over, Phillips says.
There are things parents can say to repair the sad or hurt feelings children might have. "It's really important for them to know that 'Daddy and I are going to be OK,' " Phillips says. "[Tell them,] 'Daddy and I love each other, but sometimes we don't agree and we have to figure out how to disagree without yelling so much.' "
It's even a good idea to apologize to children for fighting in front of them. That helps kids regain a sense of security. "Nonverbal cues — holding the child, putting an arm around Daddy again — these things help re-establish a child's major place of safety, which is the parent and the parents' connection," Phillips says.
And, ultimately, there is the so-called "halo effect." In a family where things are mostly positive, even a bad argument can be well-tolerated. Phillips says that means affirming all the good things in life, such as "the cake you baked, Daddy's raise, getting on the soccer team or doing homework in a timely manner."
And remember, not all arguments are equal. A good, constructive argument where a decision is reached or a problem is solved can actually teach children how to handle their own disagreements.
"When children learn emotional regulation and coping skills from the parents," Kastner says, "it builds resiliency and a sense of mastery that they can handle their own feelings in a competent way."
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.