Slamming doors, shouting and stony silences between mom and dad can really scar kids emotionally, new research suggests.
Kindergarteners whose parents fought with each other frequently and harshly were more likely to grow into emotionally insecure older children who struggled with depression, anxiety and behaviour issues by grade 7, the study authors found.
And yet, the researchers said, not all conflict was troublesome to children. If parents refrained from harshly criticising one other, stonewalling one another or being violent with one another, and instead managed to work out their problems in a constructive way, children weren't terribly bothered by the conflicts.
The key to keeping kids well-adjusted isn't having a perfect, conflict-free marriage, the study authors said. It's in being able to control emotions enough to fight fair, and resolve conflicts in a way that doesn't threaten the stability of the family, they explained.
"Problems occur every day. But if parents problem solve and try to work it out, if they come up with a resolution or work toward it, if the parents show positive emotion when they are in the middle of fighting, if they say nice things to each other or are affectionate, kids see all these things as very positive, and it changes how kids see the conflict," said study author E. Mark Cummings, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
How the study was done
The study, published in the journal Child Development, included 235 middle-class families from the Midwest and Northeast United States.
When the children were in kindergarten, parents were asked about their level of marital conflict. Parents were also asked to discuss a potentially contentious topic, such as finances or parenting, while researchers rated how critical they were of their spouse.
The children were then followed-up with seven years later, when they were in 7th grade. During that time, 36 couples separated or divorced, and two fathers died. Kids and their parents were again asked about a host of issues around behaviour and emotional health.
According to the findings, kids whose parents fought the most when the child was in kindergarten felt less emotionally secure, or felt less safe and protected. Emotional insecurity included things such as whether the kids were upset or acted out such as through hitting or aggression during the conflict, or if the kids reported they felt distressed by their parents' fights, Cummings said.
Kids who were less emotionally secure had more mental health issues such as symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as behavioural problems.
Fighting parents have an impact on kids
Studies dating back to the 1920s have found that marital conflict can impact kids, Cummings said. This research tried to get at what aspects of conflict are the most damaging.
"Conflict affects children by affecting their sense of emotional security about the family," he said. "A child has a sense of security or well-being, and if they don't have that they feel distressed emotionally, are more prone to aggression and hostility."
Parents face all sorts of stress, and fighting is normal, Cummings said. But parents need to keep in mind that their children are watching and listening.
"Conflict is part of life. If you don't always agree with your spouse, it's fine, as long as you can work it out constructively," Cummings said. "A lot of people don't realise how much kids are affected by the relationship between the parents, not just the relationship of the parents to the kids. Kids' feelings about themselves and their family have to do with how the parents relate to each other as well as to the child."
While the study uncovered an association between interparental conflict and emotional security in children, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Dr Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioural paediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park, said it's not surprising that conflict between parents isn't good for children's emotional health.
However, the researchers didn't take into account that kids with mental health or behavioural issues might also take a toll on the marriage. In addition, 36 of the couples divorced during the course of the study. Researchers didn't account for the impact that might have on children. Divorce means a change in family structure, along with relocation and a loss in family income, that is very disruptive to children.
"Although it's not surprising that marital stress is associated with later emotional and behavioural difficulties in children in adolescence, the study fails to adequately control for important possible other plausible explanations or contributing factors," Adesman said.
How divorce affects children
The Nemours Foundation has tips to help children cope with parents fighting.
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