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Parents' Arguments Hurt Kids, Marriage

Fighting Parents, Misbehaving Children Especially Hard for Stepfamilies
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WebMD Health News

Feb. 10, 2005 -- Family conflicts have a high cost, straining parents and children alike.

Parents who repeatedly fight in front of their children are more likely to have kids that act aggressively. Likewise, misbehaving kids can provoke parental arguments, fraying the ties that bind.

Those stressful scenarios played out in a study of 127 British families. The findings were gathered by British, Canadian, and U.S. researchers including Jennifer Jenkins, PhD, of the University of Toronto. Their report appears in the journal Child Development.

What Makes Families Fight?

The families had a combined total of nearly 300 children, with at least two children in each family. In 75% of the families the parents were married; the reminder were cohabiting. Most were middle class and all lived in Avon, England.

The families were interviewed twice over two years. The first time, the youngest child in each family was almost 5 years old, with siblings ranging from 6-17.

The couples stayed together, but they weren't all happy.

In the first interview, mothers were asked how often they fought with their partner about eight different topics: money, sex, in-laws, friends, behavior, recreation, demonstration of affection, and life philosophy. They also confided how frequently they fought about or in front of the children.

The children's teachers completed reports on problem behavior such as aggression, delinquency, anxiety, depression, and the child becoming withdrawn.

The researchers wanted to see if those fights made the children become more depressed or aggressive. They also wanted to know if the children prompted parental fights.

Fighting Parents, Aggressive Kids

Mothers who said they fought with their partners were more likely to have aggressive children when the follow-up interview was conducted. Teachers' reports confirmed the kids' behavior.

Many parental fights centered on aggressive children. In fact, child-focused argument was the only aspect of partner conflict that predicted an increase in children's aggressive behavior, say the researchers. Parental fighting about kids only seemed to make kids more aggressive, not more depressed.

The worse children behaved, the more likely their parents were to fight about the misbehavior. As a child's aggressive behavior increased, so did the likelihood of parental argument about that child.

It's understandable, say the researchers. They note that kids' bad behavior can make parents feel frustrated, disappointed, and humiliated. Those emotions set the stage for conflict, especially when the stakes seem high.

Two-Way Street

Children's aggressiveness was a lightning rod for and a consequence of parental fights.

"Marital conflict about children predicted change in children's behavior. Children's behavior also predicted an increase in marital conflict," write the researchers.

Kids' bad behavior created stress in partner relationships in stepfamilies more than in biological families. In both types of families, boys had more exposure to parental conflict than girls. Boys didn't provoke more fights than girls, but parents sheltered their daughters more, say the researchers.

Many families had one child that aggravated parents more than their siblings. "Some children, because of their own personalities, start up more fights between their parents," says Jenkins in a news release.

"The fact that siblings have very different experiences of family life may help explain why children in the same family develop very different personalities and behavior."

Therapists should consider the link between parents' fights and kids' behavior in working with troubled families, says Jenkins.

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