My brother Nick and his wife Kristi appeared to have an idyllic marriage. They seemed to embody happiness — always laughing, traveling extensively, and camping out on beaches along California’s Pacific Coast with their souped-up trailer to wake up and surf. In the sunny resort town of Carlsbad, Calif., where they lived, they seemed to be living the dream. Even their two children thought they had a happy union. So when they announced their divorce in 2013, our families, their friends, and especially their sons, who were 8 and 6 at the time, were shocked. Their oldest, Jake, was especially perplexed, asking, “But you never fight, so why is this happening?” Based on our parents’ long-enduring, tumultuous marriage, my brother had enforced a strict policy of never arguing in front of his children. But new research shows that the old adage “not in front of the kids” isn’t necessarily the best choice.
“Lots of research shows how detrimental it is for kids to witness unnecessary ugliness, conflict, or aggression, so because we don’t want our kids to be exposed to [anything resembling] that, we keep all of it behind closed doors and put on a good face,” says Sara F. Waters, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University in Vancouver, Wash. and the lead author of a new study in the academic journal Emotion. Her latest findings, however, suggest that it actually benefits children when parents express, as opposed to repress, normal levels of conflict (as long as it isn’t deeply malicious or abusive, of course).
For their study, Waters and her co-authors recruited families in San Francisco and gave all of them a stressful task (public speaking combined with negative feedback), then asked them to participate in a Lego project with their kids. Some parents were told to act naturally, while others were told to rein in their emotions. The kids, who ranged in age from seven to eleven, were given the building instructions to relay to their parents, who then had to assemble the Legos via their tots’ instruction. (I already feel my blood pressure rising!) All the participants were linked to sensors to track their heart rates and stress levels.
The results indicate that parents who repressed their emotions were less positive playmates to their children, and in turn, the kids were less responsive and positive toward their parents. “Kids are very perceptive. They’re very spongey,” Waters tells Thrive Global. “They’re picking up on the non-verbal subtext: other stuff that’s going on in your body, your voice, the way that you interact with other people. Their observing all of it.” In other words, you’re not really protecting your children from the frustration you’re holding inside — you’re just confusing them. “They know something is up, but not what it is, and that’s much scarier,” Waters says. “Even for adults, it’s much scarier when you know something’s wrong, but you don’t know what it is and no one talks to you about it.”
Waters also points out that parents who hide unpleasant feelings and minor everyday disputes are also missing out on the opportunity to model healthy conflict-resolution – and the latter is crucial, since the goal is not for kids to witness incessant, nasty fighting. “The key is for the child to see the full trajectory of the emotional experience,” she says.
A healthy conflict might look like this:
You get in an argument with your spouse, and you’re upset.
You might even raise your voice or say something you wouldn’t normally.
Then you take a deep breath to regulate your negative emotion.
You and your partner figure out a way to compromise and return to a place where you're loving again.
“Seeing that trajectory and coming back to a safe, regulated, loving place shows kids how to manage their emotions,” Water says. "When kids take that out into the world, they’re resilient and better able to overcome challenges and obstacles."
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