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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

The Hazards of Duking It Out: Why You Can't Fight In Front Of The Kids

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In the first episode of HBO's Girls, 20-something Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, gets a visit from her parents telling her that she is, from now on, cut off financially. How her parents choose to handle the discussion, and its fallout, is the fictionalized (and hilarious) version of something that plays out in American households all the time. One parent, Mom, is more direct with Hannah. Dad, on the other hand, reluctant -- like so many fathers of daughters -- to be the bad guy in any way, deflects the issue, turning an agreed-upon decision between two parents into something that Hannah sees as up for debate. Dad criticizes Mom as being too tough, while Mom criticizes Dad's softness. Hannah, meanwhile, knows her parents well, smells an opening on the issue, and figures correctly she has some wiggle room to change their minds.

This -- an usurping of power of sorts -- happens all the time, even among children who are younger and less aware than Hannah. When parents argue over parenting decisions in front of the children -- when they don't present a united front -- they open a door of parental uncertainty that kids jump through. Take 8-year-old Leo. Leo's mom Jennifer has a rule about eating on the couch: Don't. Leo loves to break the rule -- following the lead of his dad, Bob, who routinely lets Leo snack while the two watch TV together. In turn, Leo feels free to disobey the rule even without Bob's permission, and has begun disregarding other rules Jennifer has set as well.

Parents often have different approaches. We may have different philosophies. It's entirely normal, and natural, for one parent to be stricter than the other. Many parents establish individual boundaries: Mom might take a hard line when it comes to homework, for example, while Dad goes crazy over a broken curfew. Others may take a "good cop, bad cop" approach to parenting, alternating responsibility for being the heavy. Still others may abdicate all responsibility of confrontation to their partner: After all, disciplining children and teens can be anxiety provoking, and enforcing rules and having difficult conversations is never fun. This is fine so long as both parents agree to the roles they're taking on.

The problem, however, comes when parents get caught fighting -- about parenting or anything else -- in front of the kids, especially younger ones. Research has shown that kids learn to fight by watching their caregivers do the same -- or not. Of course, raised voices and uncontrollable tears happen -- we're all human, and raising kids is never easy. But calm discussions, by contrast, teach kids that disagreements needn't be drama-filled. And by calm, I mean mellow enough that you might as well be talking about ice cream. Most children are too young to understand that raised voices or heated back-and-forths might not end in someone "getting in trouble." Kids understand the difference between right and wrong. They don't understand the subtleties of what lies in between.

Think about the child who, following a disagreement, asks his parents if they're going to get a divorce. Mommy and Daddy know that's not the case (we hope). But for a child, that possibility is very real, even if you tell him it's not, and that's incredibly stressful. Any level of disagreement feels like the end of the world -- and that they're at risk for losing one, or both, of you. In most cases, a child will even put himself in the middle of the situation and blame himself for the upheaval: What was it I did wrong, he wonders? Or they'll feel conflicted about whether they have to side with one parent or the other.

Openly arguing gets trickier as the kids get older. When parenting teenagers, one parent may gravitate towards the role of peacekeeper. (Very generally speaking, we see this happen often with fathers of teenage daughters.) But older kids, purposely or not, can split parents -- especially when they want something -- pitting one against the other and turning a parenting issue into a point of contention between two adults who should be on the same team.

This doesn't mean parents or caregivers need to agree on everything, publicly or otherwise. It's important for kids to learn that raising children -- whether the caregivers are married in the traditional sense or not -- is a partnership, and that partnerships are give and take. In life, people don't always agree -- nor do they need to. But keep the content of your arguments away from the subject of parenting, and keep calm and respectful. As best you can, settle differences out of earshot of the kids -- and I'm talking about cold wars as well. Not speaking, dirty looks, undermining each other -- these are actions that may be unspoken but which kids can pick up on. And because they know something's wrong -- but they don't know exactly what -- they're left to guess. And guess what? Nobody wins.