Whether they’re screaming or steaming, warring parents have a long-lasting, negative effect on their children’s development.
A group of studies that looked at children at different ages and over time found that both kinds of parental conflict, outright hostility or giving each other the cold shoulder, caused anxiety and acting-out behavior in their children and threatened their emotional security.
And not only do kids not get used to fighting, they become more sensitive to it over time, said E. Mark Cummings, a professor of psychology at Notre Dame University who was the lead researcher on one of the studies, published last week in the journal Child Development.
“People think that kids who are exposed to conflict get used to it. But the longer it goes on, the worse it is for kids,” said Cummings. That’s true for boys and girls, no matter what their age. Teenagers, who parents often think are not paying attention to what’s going on in the household, are especially sensitive, he said.
Cummings’ study looked at two sets of families: 226 parents and their 9- to 18-year-old children, and 232 parents of kindergarten-age children. Both sets were followed for three years.
Researchers assessed marital conflict and children’s adjustment to it, rating how the children reacted to the conflict, how they felt about themselves, and how upset they were. They found the children exhibited signs of anxiety, sadness and fright. They acted out by yelling angrily, throwing or breaking things.
Many became over-involved in the fighting, stepping in to try to break it up even if it was dangerous for them to do so, Cummings said.
“It’s sad to see a 5-year-old mediating a fight, but they do. Children love their parents, and they want them to get along,” he said.
Over time, the conflict erodes children’s feelings of emotional security. Cummings likens emotional security to the child’s bridge to the world. When it’s working, the marital relationship serves as a secure base.
Parents who believe that more subtle methods like the silent treatment or the cold shoulder won’t affect the children are wrong, the studies concluded.
Patrick Davies, a University of Rochester psychology professor and the lead researcher on another study of parental conflict, said those behaviors also cause stress and anxiety in children.
“Kids pick up on that. It’s not the solution,” said Davies, whose study looked at 223 6-year-olds and their parents over a year.
Davies and Cummings said their findings showed that children had the best outcomes when parents fought constructively, when they resolved a problem together or struck a compromise.
“We’re not recommending parents never fight. We think if kids are never exposed to conflict, they might not be able to develop the coping skills necessary for them to go out into the world,” Davies said. “Our recommendation is that it’s okay to disagree occasionally in front of the children as long as it’s well-regulated and they are trying to resolve it.”
A third study published in the journal found that children of parents who fought frequently also suffered poor sleep patterns.
Peggy O’Crowley covers family issues. She can be reached at " firstname.lastname@example.org ":mailto:email@example.com or at (973) 392-5810.