Jason and Melissa's parents were having an argument in the kitchen. Both of their teenagers were in the adjoining TV room.
"All you ever do is think of yourself."
"All you ever do is nag."
"I wouldn't have to nag if you ever did anything."
"I would do more, if you didn't nag so much."
"No you wouldn't. You wouldn't do anything, like you always do."
Suddenly a man appeared in their kitchen.
"The two of you, stop right there."
"Who are you?"
"I'm from the parenting police. You are breaking a major parenting rule. You are arguing in front of your teenage children."
Actually I don't totally agree with the parenting police. I'm not for parents arguing in front of their teenagers, but I am less certain that such arguing is necessarily damaging.
Parents arguing in the presence of their teens can be harmful. But I would contend that it is bad mainly when the arguing crosses certain boundaries. When it stays within the following rules, it may not be a problem. These rules apply equally to parent-and-partner or parent-and-stepparent.
Never involve the kids in the argument
"Jason, do you ever see your father helping around here with anything? Don't you agree with me?"
No, definitely not.
Never let it get physical
That is terrifying to kids -always.
Never argue about divorce
That does need to be private.
Each parent (or partner) must be able to adequately hold up their side
If the arguing is always one-sided, it does disturb kids and sets a bad example of a relationship.
Never degrade or belittle each other
The words can be angry - even loud - but not humiliating.
Never argue when drinking
Alcohol-fuelled arguments can lead to very bad places. If there has been drinking and an argument breaks out, one or the other of the adults has to temporarily leave.
Don't let it happen too often
It is not okay if it colours the tone of what goes on within the home.
It can't be too personal
Definitely not about sex, but also not about love.
If any of these rules are flouted, you must not argue in front of your teens.
But with most partner relationships, there is going to be arguing. No two people are always going to agree about everything. Arguing is not bad per se. Sometimes it is even necessary. There may be a benefit to teens seeing that parents can argue and have it end up okay.
They get to see that if there is something bothering you, maybe it is okay to say it - even if you and the other person may get emotional, even angry - yet no one seems to come away damaged because of the arguing. The two arguers may even return - in a not very long period of time - to having a nice, even affectionate, relationship. Another benefit is that teens get to see that two people can have a strong, long-standing relationship even though they often disagree, and even though both see the other as being far less than perfect. Real-world relationships.
But doesn't the arguing - even if it does not end up in disaster - still bother teenage children? Let's ask.
"Does your parents' arguing bother you?"
"What bothers you the most about your parents' arguing?"
"They can get really noisy and it interferes with me listening to my music or paying attention to texts from my friends. They should have a little respect for what other people are trying to do. And if I want something I can't ask them for anything. And do you know what else? It makes them crabby for a while. So they snap at me more. It's really rude. Parents shouldn't argue in front of their kids."
In other words, the teen response to arguing within limits is simply, "how does it affect my life right now?" If the argument has no major repercussions in their lives, really, from their standpoint, who cares?
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.