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Women's Health

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Kids Harmed When Parents Fight

Unresolved Parent Conflicts Mar Kids' Emotional Development
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 9, 2006 -- Unsettled fights between parents impair children's emotional development, new studies show.

Mom and Dad may shout till they're red in the face. They may stew in stony silence. Whether their unresolved conflict results in hostility or indifference to one another, it takes its toll on their children, find University of Notre Dame psychologist E. Mark Cummings, PhD, and colleagues.

Psychologists have long known that a strong child-parent bond is the key to kids' mental health and social adjustment. The new research suggests that it's just as important for children to feel secure about their parents' relationship with each other.

"What we show is that children's emotional security is affected by the relationship between the parents -- not just the child's relationship to the parent," Cummings tells WebMD.

Cummings' and colleagues report their findings in the January/February issue of Child Development.

Children Affected at All Ages

Cummings, study co-leader Patrick T. Davies, PhD, of the University of Rochester, N.Y., and colleagues actually did three new studies. They first looked at 226 children (9 to 18 years old) and their parents, evaluated three years apart. They then repeated the study with 232 kindergarten-aged kids.

The researchers evaluated the parents' marital functioning and quality, conflict tactics, and their ratings of their children's adjustment. They also evaluated the children for depression and asked them, privately, about how their parents got along.

Finally, they followed 223 6-year-olds and their parents over the course of a year. They looked at how parents worked out their disagreements and measured the children's distress reactions and negative thoughts. In each study the researchers accounted for kids' individual adjustment and other factors, allowing them to see what changes in the children were directly linked to parental conflict.

What they found was that parental conflict wasn't a problem if the parents resolved their differences. But when these conflicts remained open, children responded with depression, anxiety, and/or behavior problems.

"Parents don't realize that children are sensitive to their conflicts," Cummings says. "But we find they are sensitive at very early ages -- starting at 1 year of age, at least. Children are like emotional Geiger counters with regard to their parents' relationship. If parents really resolve things, children will know it. If they don't, children will know that, too."

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