Dear Mr. Dad: Like a lot of couples these days, my wife and I are going through some tough times. We argue about everything–but especially money. How can we work through these issues without stressing out the kids?

A: As the economy continues to stagnate and families find themselves having to adjust to a very different life than the one they’d planned, this is a question I get more and more often. The truth is that all couples go through some tough times at various points. And, as much as we’d like to pretend our adult troubles aren’t affecting our kids, we’re dead wrong. Kids have a much better idea of what’s going on than we give them credit for, and they definitely feel the stress and uncertainty that come with knowing that their parents are less than completely happy with each other.

You often hear that the greatest gift parents can give to their children is to love and respect each other. In a perfect world, sure, but in real life, that’s often easier said than done. Here are a few rules that may reduce some of the tension your family is living under during these tough times.

  • Keep your arguments private. Wait until you’re behind closed doors–or, better yet, when the children are at school, outside, or sleeping–before you start debating. Keep your voices low, and if you can’t reach an agreement within 30 minutes or so, take a break and schedule Part II for later. To the extent possible, don’t talk about your disagreements when the children are around.
  • Maintain a semblance of harmony. You don’t have to fake extreme affection, but it wouldn’t hurt to show respect and display a thoughtful attitude in communication. Cooperate with each other on household chores, stay involved with the kids’ activities, and keep the family on its usual schedule as much as possible.
  • Get some outside help. This may seem kind of obvious, but many couples dance around or ignore tough topics for years at a time. The household silence and stress become almost unbearable for everyone, especially kids, and they reinforce unhealthy attitudes toward managing conflict. If you can’t resolve your conflicts on your own within a reasonable amount of time, find yourselves a good counselor or spiritual adviser.
  • Do not use the children as weapons or shields. It’s unfair for kids to be told to wheedle information from Mommy or to ask Daddy where he was last night. Your children are innocent bystanders to whatever’s going on in your marriage and have absolutely no role to play in it.
  • Be honest without going overboard. If your children ask questions, such as “Are you and Mommy mad at each other?” try say something like “Mom and I are trying to figure out some things right now, but we’re doing okay.” Remind them that just as siblings don’t always get along, parents have occasional tussles too.
  • Reassure them. While kids may be aware that you and Mom are having trouble, they need to know they aren’t the cause. Also, kids have a tendency to see the world through “what does it mean for me” glasses.
  • Don’t pretend everything is fine when it isn’t, but remind them frequently that no matter what happens, you and mom will both be there to love and care for them.
  • Lighten up a little. Continue to supervise their schoolwork, get involved with their extracurricular activities, and be sure to schedule in some activities that let everyone relax for a while.