Is arguing in front of the children child abuse?

The other night I was working into the evening and so my wife took the opportunity to catch up on Teen Mom 2, an MTV reality series which, as the name suggests, is about women who have had children in their teens. 

I found myself having to put down the laptop and watch as one of the featured ‘moms’ Jenelle, was having an argument with her mother about dropping back her son. Jenelle’s mother, Barbara, has custody of Jace, who is 7 years old, due to her previous issues with drugs. Jenelle and her boyfriend had enjoyed a day out fishing, and asked Barbara to meet them half way to collect Jace. Barbara refused as she had collected him the previous week and asked them to drop him off at home.

It is a common issue between separated parents, albeit in this case between mother and daughter. However what happened next made me extremely concerned. Jenelle tried to explain that to Jace that she wanted him to live with her and that the judge said she must live with her mother, his ‘meme’. She wanted to talk to him about it when he was old enough to understand. But he clearly did not understand and looked terrified that they were arguing. Jenelle then put his ‘meme’ on loud speaker so that Jace could hear both sides of the argument, and heard meme say it will ‘be a long time in Hell before he goes to your house again’. The argument continues with them both swearing in the front of the children. I had glossed over the fact that the boyfriend was driving whilst talking on the phone to Jenelle’s mother earlier.

Jenelle later tweeted that this had been edited badly to make her look like a bad mother. Maybe so, but it does not disguise the fact that a 7 year old boy witnessed the argument in full, is confused about what is happening, knows the two people in his life that he loves the most are angry with each other and the look on his face summed up why we should never argue in front of the children.

There have been many studies on the emotional impact of a divorce or separation on a child. The results all show that parents (or in this case mother and grandmother) who argue in front of their children does cause long term damage to the child. It is, to this extreme, a form of child abuse.

I don’t know if Barbara gave in and collected Jace, or if Jenelle and Jace are still waiting in a car park half way. I do know that this is a good example of how a court order is ineffective in protecting a child and how both Barbara and Jenelle should hang their heads in shame at their actions. It would surely have been better for one of them to concede rather than dig their heels in and cause the emotional damage to the child they both love.

Alistair Carter is founder of Divorce Friend, Surrey Mediation Service and Hampshire Family Mediation and has assisted over 1000 clients divorce or separate amicably. You can email him at or tweet @alistaircarter9

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