What Your Kids Are Thinking When You & Your Spouse Fight In Front Of Them

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sad boy hugging father

A married couple fighting in front of children usually goes like this.

Nine-year-old Inez pulls the covers around her head in that certain way that will keep her safe. Wide awake, she wonders whether her parents will divorce.

She endures the familiar, overwhelming anxiety until the two angry voices from downstairs are muffled — but clearly still angry — finally calm down.

Downstairs, her parents wonder how their arguments affect Inez. There's no violence between them, so is harm being done?

Well, Inez and four others, now adults, have shared what they were thinking when their parents argued in front of them when they were children.

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So, if you and your spouse are often fighting in front of children, here are 7 thoughts they may be thinking.

1. "What’s going to happen to the family?"

Inez’s parents had a comfortable, though not passionate, marriage and the arguments were mild compared to many couples. Still, she worried that her parents would get divorced.

"Those arguments were rare, but they seemed to me to last forever,” she says.

"I’d be petrified the whole time. I remember crying and praying that they wouldn’t get divorced. When the angry voices finally, finally stopped, I’d figure that they weren’t getting divorced after all. I’d feel so relieved and happy."

2. "I have to get away."

Reid’s parents did not get along.

"When an argument started, I was afraid I might get yelled at, too. I just wanted to get out of the way. I’d hide in a certain spot where I felt safe to wait it out until the voices died down.

He would listen to the argument, though, because "knowing that it was still going on gave me more comfort than not knowing what was happening."

3. "I don’t know what they’re arguing about, but I know I’m scared."

Reid continues, "I didn’t pay attention to the words or even to whether the anger was ebbing and flowing; I was only interested in the fact that the argument was either happening or it was over."

Inez agrees.

"Those nights in bed, I couldn’t understand the words my parents were saying at all. I’m sure they waited until I went to bed so they wouldn’t argue in front of me, but that didn’t make me less afraid. I could tell that the voices were angry."

4. "I’m siding with Mom or with Dad … or neither."

When Corbin’s parents argued, they often attacked each other, and nothing was resolved. Corbin once interrupted an argument to tell his father to shut up.

He says he spoke up because he "tried to figure out who was right. I’d usually figure that out quickly. Dad’s rude attitude went against what I had been taught. It seemed obvious to speak up."

His sister, Brynne, had a similar experience.

"When I was older," she says. "I would just tell my parents to be quiet. I realized that there was never going to be a mature discussion. Everything they said was going to be negative, and nothing constructive was going to happen."

5. "I don’t respect someone who treats their spouse that way."

Corbin and Brynne’s experiences demonstrate that older children notice whether their parents behave in a respectful way or whether their behavior is destructive.

Brynne says, "My parents fought in a state of chaos. Rational people look ahead and do things to prevent chaos from happening. My parents didn’t prevent it, and then they reacted the moment. Their chaos overflowed onto us children because we had to hear their immature fighting. Adults should have handled situations better."

Corbin says, "In the end, I had more negative views towards both parents. I would think, ‘He’s wrong,’ and ‘She’s being stupid.’"

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6. "I have to solve their problem."

When Corbin interrupted his parents, he was trying to make the argument stop. But since he was a child, he saw only the surface level of their argument: Two adults yelling at each other over something trivial.

The truth, however, was that his parents had a long history of deeper issues that they were both angry about.

"Clearly, the arguments were about more than just the subject matter," he now says. "I was just trying to stop the arguments in a rational way. I was sure I was right."

It would have been impossible, though, for Corbin to solve their underlying problems. But he didn’t realize that, and he judged both parents without understanding the subtleties involved.

"I felt frustrated," he says.

7. "They’ll work it out and get over it soon."

If the marriage is good, however, kids may be thinking this.

Sean’s parents were happily married. They seldom fought, but occasionally his father spoke angrily.

"But he would get over it instantly," Sean says. "He was never condescending to my mother afterward, nor was she to him. I was never worried or scared because they were always over it so quickly."

The good news is that children don’t have to be traumatized by arguments.

If your marriage is basically good, if arguments don’t get out of control, and if you sincerely make up afterward, children learn that relationships survive disagreements.

The bad news is that if your marriage is not good, fights get nasty and if you often don’t make up later, kids suffer.

What children are thinking during arguments depends on the parents’ relationship and the overall family life.

Children don’t like to hear their parents argue. They feel fear and want to get away. They judge their parents.

Some children learn that arguing is part of a relationship and love will survive. Other children are traumatized by witnessing bad marriages characterized by destructive ways of fighting that never resolve the issues.

So, it’s worth it, for your childrens’ sake, to work on your marriage.

RELATED: How To Fix A Relationship When One (Or Both) Of You Keeps Picking Fights

Frances Patton, LMFT, is a Marriage and Family Therapist. She specializes in couples and family therapy. For more of her writing, visit her blog.