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The family way
6:00am Saturday 22nd March 2014 in Lifestyle
Parents don't need to stop arguing for the sake of their children, they just need to do it better, a relationship expert tells Lisa Salmon.
Most parents realise that bickering - or full-blown arguing - is a normal part of a relationship. But what most don't realise, is there is 'good arguing' and there is 'bad arguing', and for the sake of their children, they need to learn the difference.
Because new research into parental conflict shows that although arguing can damage children, if it is done 'well', any negative effects on the kids are minimised or don't occur at all.
Dr Catherine Houlston, a researcher at the relationship charity OnePlusOne and one of the authors of the new review Parental Conflict: Outcomes and Interventions for Children and Families (Policy Press, £16.99) says, "We're not being unrealistic and saying don't argue ever, because we know conflict is a normal part of family life.
"But research shows that it's how you argue that matters, so try to avoid destructive conflicts like physical aggression, verbal aggression where you're shouting at one another, and things like silent treatment and withdrawal, which can be even more problematic for children."
These problems include emotional and behavioural difficulties such as depression or aggression, trouble getting on with others, problems settling in and achieving at school, sleep difficulties, and poorer physical health, like stomach aches and headaches.
In addition to this, research shows family relationship patterns can be passed on from one generation to the next, and destructive conflict in parents might be mirrored in children's relationships when they grow up.
"Children pick up on behaviours, rather than the words their parents are using. Parents need to model good behaviour," she adds.
So, although Houlston concedes it is easier said than done, parents learning to argue sensibly, calmly and effectively is crucial.
As emotions are almost certain to be running high before and during a row, she suggests parents try taking deep breaths, being aware of their heart rate, and counting to 10.
Parents should also try to pick an appropriate time to hold a conversation likely to lead to conflict, and be careful how they phrase things.
"Don't pick a time when your partner's just got back from a stressful day at work," she says, "and try and stay calm and listen to your partner.
"Also, try to speak for yourself by saying 'I feel...' or 'I think...', avoiding saying 'You do this, you do that'."
Even if you manage to do this, though, and not openly argue in front of your kids, you still must be wary of dragging them into your conflict in other ways.
"Avoid putting children in a position where they have to judge or choose between parents, or are being used as a messenger between parents - this often happens when parents are separating."
How to conclude the argument is as important as how to conduct it, too. Because it almost doesn't matter to children what the argument is about, Houlston explains, as long as they see a final resolution.
They need to see their parents trying to negotiate and resolve the conflict, by offering up solutions or compromises - realising you must try to work through differences with someone will help a child's own relationship skills later in life.
That said, any argument resolution needs to be genuine.
"Children are not fooled when parents tell them things have been sorted out, but fail to relate to each other in ways that demonstrate that the relationship has been repaired," says Houlston.
"Parents' actions need to echo their words."
Finally, while young children don't need too much information about what's going on in a dispute, it's important to reassure a child of any age that just because their parents are disagreeing, it has no impact on the child's relationship with their mum and dad.
"Keeping the lines of communication open with a child, and finding out what they're thinking, is really important."
:: For more information, visit www.oneplusone.org.uk
Ask the expert
Q: "I never add salt to the food I prepare for my children, and if they have ready meals I always try to make sure the salt content isn't high. Is this enough to protect them from consuming too much salt?"
A: Professor Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London, and chairman of Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), led a recent study into children's salt intake.
He says: "The answer sadly is no, this isn't sufficient to protect them from the effects of eating too much salt.
"High blood pressure is the single biggest cause of death and disability in the world, through the strokes, heart attacks and heart failure it causes, and salt intake is by far the biggest factor that puts up our blood pressure, which starts to rise after the first year of life.
"There is now good evidence in children that their rate of rise in blood pressure is less if they eat less salt, and thereby they are much less likely to have high blood pressure later in life.
"The biggest sources of salt in children's diet, as shown in our study, are bread, cereals, meat products and dairy products. Clearly if you cook all of your own food at home for your children using fresh vegetables, fresh meat and fish, rice, pasta etc then they will have a low salt intake.
"But as soon as you add anything from a packet, it's likely to contain salt. Processed meals tend to have very high salt levels, and all of the fast foods and snacks that children consume are very high in salt, as well as fat, and often sugar.
"There are cereals available with less salt in, for instance various Shredded Wheat products which have no added salt, but beware that some cereals contain a lot of sugar.
"In relation to bread, you can find breads in the supermarket - particularly own label supermarket breads - that are lower in salt that branded ones.
"Meat and milk products (particularly cheese) are very high in salt and should be avoided because they are also high in fat.
"Other sources of salt include stock cubes, soy sauce and sauces such as tomato ketchup, which should also be avoided/limited."
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