Parents often ask us about how to help children with their reactions to parental arguments.  The following is our advice to the parents of a 7-year-old who overheard an argument between his mother and father.

Question:

A few nights ago, my husband and I had a very heated argument that had to do with a recurrent area of disagreement between us. In addition to raised, angry voices, we said things such as, "I've had it with you," and "Are you deaf or just don't care?"

Unfortunately our 7-year-old son, Timmy, heard most of the argument. Since then, he needs more attention and doesn't let me out of his sight. My husband and I have had minor arguments before, but nothing like this. Although there are longstanding issues between us, our marriage is good, and we both got carried away. What should we do now?

Answer: Timmy is anxious, which is why he is regressed and needs more support. Let's briefly discuss some of a 7-year-old's developmental needs to provide a framework for helping Timmy.

What does a 7-year-old need?

Aside from special situations in which a child is already anxious for some reason, a 7-year-old needs to feel confident that Mommy and Daddy's marriage is secure. It's important for you to show Timmy that you and your spouse believe each other to be wonderful, but wonderful does not mean perfect. This is important because children are able to successfully identify with their parents' valuable attributes only if the parents show they value these attributes.

Address disruptions in the usual state of affairs with positive, constructive action and solutions. Examples of disruptions include parental unemployment, illnesses, losses and, in this case, parents verbally attacking each other.

Helping your child with regression

We recommend that you accept and allow Timmy's regression for the time being. His world has been mildly shaken, so he is seeking reassurance and comfort. Your task is to find a middle ground, as you should any time Timmy regresses in response to an overwhelming experience. Allow some regression, but also encourage him to find his own strength. This will play out differently in every situation.

For example, you might allow him to shadow you, but find some time during the day, such as when you are preparing dinner, when you expect him to occupy himself in some other part of the house. As days go by, slowly raise the bar of expectations. Some children get back to themselves in a few days; others take a month or more. There is no roadmap, but this will go well if you gently push, then observe his capacity to respond to your push as a gauge for whether you are pushing too little or too much.

Talking with your child

There is an elephant in your house and you should discuss it with Timmy. If you don't, his imagination could run wild, transforming what is currently a minor bump in the road into a significant emotional concern. Ideally, both parents should have this conversation with Timmy so he sees you are both on the same page.

One way to proceed might be to tell Timmy you had a scary argument with

each other and would like to discuss it with him. You might also tell him Mommy and Daddy have talked a lot and apologized to each other for saying such hurtful things. Empathize with him by explaining that you know this argument was scary for him to hear. Then ask him what he would like to tell you or ask you. Some children will respond expressionlessly and quietly; others will release all of their emotions and thoughts. How you take it from there will depend on the individual child.

However the discussion develops, here are some important points to make:

*    You have both talked about your argument and come up with a plan. It is important to convey that you are capable of "detoxifying" the aggression and finding constructive resolutions.

*     You both love each other, and your marriage is a good and strong one. Reassure Timmy that he does not have to worry about anything such as divorce, and that when parents love each other, they find ways to work out what they disagree on.

*     The hurtful statements you made to each other were because you were both mad — not a reflection on how you feel about each other.

All parents, even those who love each other very much, experience disappointments and frustrations about the other. Sometimes a parent is able to change; other times he or she can't. Regardless, it's important to keep listening to each other and trying to make changes.

As with so many challenging life events, Timmy's experience provides an opportunity for you to teach him some important life lessons. With your support, he will come through this stronger and wiser.

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