Conflict in front of children – yes or no?


By Lourindi Nel

Learning that good intentions and even the pleasant feeling we think of as love alone is not always enough to get the desired results is a difficult lesson.

Sometimes we get hurt a lot before we realize that love is a verb, with the emphasis on work! Most of the work that needs to happen is often on ourselves – we need to learn how to communicate, how to deal with conflict, how to give words to our experiences, expectations and even plans, how to forgive and how to safely be in ourselves and for others.

Statistics South Africa says that in 2022, 18,850 South African children experienced the trauma of divorce in their families. For some of these children, divorce was the final blow of years of conflict, of a tight atmosphere in the home, silent convulsions, sarcasm and angry words, passive-aggression and sometimes even physical violence. For many of them, the word ‘conflict’ will always be synonymous with a nasty anxiety in the pit of their stomach or the tight fear of not knowing what will happen next.

Conflict itself is not negative. On the contrary, it is an essential component of healthy relationships. The concept simply refers to situations where people hold different opinions or opinions about a matter and have to work through it. In any long-term relationship, conflict that is handled correctly can lead to a higher degree of intimacy and a better understanding of each other.

Unmanaged conflict, on the other hand, manifests in destructive ways that can leave deep scars for everyone involved. Children who are exposed to these kinds of experiences feel unsafe and learn defense mechanisms that often continue to negatively affect them well into their adult lives.

Should parents work on their differences in front of their children or are grandma and grandpa who disappear stiffly into the room and get angry with each other in whispered voices a better option?

If we take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what we want to invest in our children’s lives before they enter adulthood, it is actually extremely important to teach them correct conflict management. We value making sure they have the necessary physical skills to be successful – we teach them to drive, we show them how to open a bank account and give pocket money from an early age to make sure they know how to work with money. We are hours behind tutors and invest thousands of rands in their academic progress, but often we forget about the emotional and social skills that should help them to live healthy and happy – how to share emotionally intelligently with challenging situations, how to respectfully disagree and negotiate for a win-win solution. These deficient skills lie at the foundation of many broken relationships between people who initially truly loved each other.

How does one change it? What needs to happen for our children to enter the world with the right interpersonal skills? A good starting point is to realize that example and personal experience are our children’s first and most prominent mode of learning. We ourselves must master – and live out – the skills we want to teach our children. If we don’t do the necessary emotional work to learn better interpersonal skills, we easily fall into the trap of using the very strategies that our children need to unlearn, to educate them – we shout out of hopeless frustration or give up because they hurt and we fight with each other in ways that will get our children knee-deep in trouble if they imitate it at school with peers.

In the real world, it is not realistic to never have a disagreement in front of children. If I had to give an answer to the difficult question of whether conflict is acceptable in front of children, it would be a conditional ‘yes’. Dealing with conflict in front of children is acceptable, even important for their development, but fighting in front of them, losing control, having silent fits for days or badmouthing each other is certainly not ideal!

Children must learn that one sometimes holds both love and anger in one’s being and how one must then work through it. They must be able to see how a person respectfully takes your side without getting personal or placing the importance of “winning” above the relationship. They must clearly see how one controls oneself and does not try to control someone else with cunning words or behavior. Very important, they need to see how one corrects where you went wrong and apologizes for things you said or did wrong.

If you want to facilitate healthy emotional and social ways of thinking in your family, the following points are important considerations in conflict situations where children are present:

  • Maintain emotional regulation: Parents’ emotional regulation during conflicts has a significant impact on children’s ability to handle the associated stress. Expressions of anger, hostility, or aggression should be avoided in front of children. Modeling healthy coping strategies such as taking “time-out” to cool down, or getting help if needed is worth its weight in gold.
  • Learn to communicate constructively: Effective communication is the key to healthy conflict management. Techniques such as using ‘I’ messages instead of critical or offensive language can make a big difference. It is also wise to steer clear of generalizations such as always, never, everything and everyone. The intensity of conflict often also decreases when one strives to actively listen and really gain understanding for each other’s different perspectives.
  • Focus on solving the problem rather than ‘winning’: The focus of conflict management should be problem solving rather than winning. Ideally, work must be done towards a mutually acceptable solution.
  • Ensure emotional safety for children: Children should be protected from details of an adult level, which can make them feel unsafe or anxious. This kind of information can instead be discussed privately. If a disagreement occurs in front of children, it is important to reassure them.
  • Follow up with assurance and reconciliation actions: After conflicts have been resolved, it is essential to reassure children that the disagreement has been worked through and that everything has returned to normal. When we model forgiveness and reconciliation, we teach children that conflict is a normal part of relationships and that one does not have to shy away from it.

All things considered, perhaps the question is not whether we should disagree in front of our children, but rather whether we are willing to learn how to do it right, in a way that they can imitate without negative consequences? It’s much easier said than done but our children, the next generation of parents, are worth the time and attention it takes to master these skills.

  • This is the second article in a series of columns and podcasts about parenting and the next article will appear on June 6. Lourindi has been a child and adult counselor in Centurion for the past 20 years. She is happily married and the proud mother of four children – a 17-year-old, a 9-year-old, and twins aged 5. Her passion is to empower families through parenting guidance, parenting workshops and any other possible way to function healthily and happily. . Follow her up Facebook or Instagramor send a WhatsApp to 062 374 2847.