Lasting Effects of Parents' Squabbles
Kindergarteners whose parents fight with each other frequently and harshly are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and behavior issues by middle school, a new study says.
But the study also shows that the children of parents who "fight fair" by controlling their emotions and resolving disagreements through constructive discussions aren't terribly bothered by conflict.
Study author E. Mark Cummings, Ph.D., at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., says it's not fighting that's the problem. It's how parents argue in front of their children that affects behavior.
"Conflict is part of life," Dr. Cummings says. "It affects children by affecting their sense of emotional security about the family."
Kids notice when parents work together to find solutions to problems and show positive emotions while fighting, he says. "If you don't always agree with your spouse, it's fine, as long as you can work it out constructively."
For the study, researchers followed 235 middle-class families from the Midwest and Northeast for seven years.
When the children were in kindergarten, parents were quizzed about problems at home - like finances and parenting - and then rated on their level of marital conflict and how much they criticized their spouse.
Researchers checked back with the children during seventh grade and learned that 36 couples had separated or divorced, and two fathers had died. Both kids and parents again answered questions about behavior and emotional health.
Dr. Cummings and his team learned that kids whose parents fought a lot when the child was in kindergarten felt less emotionally secure, or felt less safe and protected. Emotionally insecure kids were more upset and acted out more often by hitting or showing aggression during conflict, or reported feeling distressed by their parents' fights.
Kids who were less emotionally secure also had more symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as behavioral problems.
Dr. Cummings says that previous marital conflict studies have shown links between family conflict and child behavior, but that he's trying to figure out just what aspects of conflict are the most damaging.
He says many people don't realize how much kids are affected by the relationship between two parents.
The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Child Development.
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