All couples have disagreements, but a recent study shows that how you manage those disagreements can have a profound effect on your child's well-being. Researchers at the University of Arizona examined parental conflict and child well-being in three "waves", beginning in pregnancy and ending when the child turned three. In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Family Psychology, graduate student Olena Kopystynska and her colleagues concluded that while "constructive" conflict can be useful and even instructive, "destructive" conflict erodes children's emotional security.
Photo: Darrell J. Rohl
Meredith Martin, an assistant professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and who was not involved in the study, said the summarised conclusions appeared to jibe with previous research on family conflict. "Kids are sensitive to signs of anger - they're sensitive to what is threatening. So if parents are making angry faces or yelling, or one parent is showing signs of fear, that undermines the child's sense of emotional security. Not only are they feeling afraid, but the very people who are supposed to be comforting them, their parents, are unavailable. So it's a two-pronged attack."
Constructive vs. Destructive Conflict
So what exactly is constructive and destructive conflict? How are you to know, in the middle of a disagreement with your partner, if you're fighting "right"?
Dr Martin says, "Constructive means interparental conflict strategies that, from the child's perspective, are not threatening." Couples who are arguing constructively employ various strategies that don't alarm or infuriate anyone, especially their kid, such as:
- Calm discussion
- Active listening
- Constructive statements that focus on the problem, not the person
- Avoiding hyperbole
- Displays of warmth and affection
Destructive means conflict that, from the child's perspective, is threatening, such as:
- Expressions of intense anger
- Verbal and physical aggression
- Belittling or humiliating one's partner
- Slamming doors
- Throwing objects
- "Stonewalling", or refusing to engage with one's partner
- Expressions of parental fear
Dr Martin also emphasises that conflicts involving the child, such as blaming them, or asking them to take a side, are also destructive because they put the child directly in the middle of the fight.
Kids who are regularly exposed to this kind of negative fighting are never able to fully relax and feel secure, which has far-reaching implications on their health, education, and ability to form attachments: "Emotional security is a fundamental human need. It's hard to be, for example, a kid in kindergarten - sitting still, paying attention, being quiet - when your body and mind is worried about feeling safe. When you feel safe, you're more open to learning and to engaging in relationships. These are important developmental skills," says Dr Martin. In other words, constant vigilance takes a toll.
Kids who are exposed to destructive conflict will take defensive measures to protect themselves: They might act out, because that distracts the parents from their fight. They might hide, run away, or cover their eyes and ears. Or they might even try to intervene - because obviously the parents can't handle the conflict themselves - and mediate the conflict in a way that's really not appropriate. Or they will try to "camouflage" themselves - going quiet and getting small to avoid notice. "The 'camouflage' kids are trying to hide some really intense internal physiological distress," says Dr Martin.
This Doesn't Mean No Fighting, Ever
Just as some parents don't know how to disagree without resorting to hostility, "Some parents worry that any disagreement is bad for kids. But disagreements are fully part of life. It's the hostile strategies - humiliation, aggression, stonewalling - that cause problems," says Dr Martin.
In fact, exposure to constructive conflict can actually be beneficial: Kids witness how people manage disagreements without scorched-earth tactics, a skill that will stand them in good stead as they're working through conflict with peers or partners down the line. So if you want an emotionally healthy kid, Dr Martin says, "the number-one thing that you can do to promote a child's emotional security is reduce the exposure to destructive conflict."
This might mean counseling, of course, or at the very least saving your disagreements for when you aren't with your children. "One thing that's been really helpful [for couples struggling to reduce conflict] is simply recognising that what they're doing involves the child. People think that if they're hiding it, or the child is not involved - or even if they're behind closed doors - it's not harmful. So it's enough to have couples think: 'Maybe we don't have to have this conversation in front of our child.' This can have a huge impact in reducing the amount of destructive conflict the child is exposed to."
Sleep habits. Fertility. Steps per day. Water consumption. There's a tracker for that - all of that. So it probably shouldn't have surprised me to read Dr Catherine Pearlman's advice for struggling parents, and yet it kind of blew my mind. When you're trying to change your child's behaviour and you're not sure if what you're doing is working, she suggests collecting some data and analysing it.
How Bad is Divorce, Anyway?
One interesting aspect of the University of Arizona study: The children of parents who both had destructive arguing styles had the lowest levels of insecurity. Now this group was small, but Kopystynska suggests that those couples might simply have broken up during the three years, reducing the overall level of destructive conflict kids were exposed to.
Dr Martin says, "I would argue that if the decision is between staying together and exposing child to high levels of conflict, and separating and lowering levels of conflict, divorce can be relatively preferable to staying together." She cites research that shows that divorce in and of itself isn't bad - it's the relationship between co-parents and the relationship between each parent and the child that's meaningful.
So if the parents are still engaging in a lot of conflict post-divorce, that isn't a substantially better situation (for the kids) than being married. But if the overall level of conflict drops, kids are better off.
Need some resources? The Institute of Family Studies offers good summaries of the research on family conflict. You can also try any therapist trained in resolving conflict, or a clergy member. If you're totally stuck, try this book. And be gentle with yourself: A lot of us didn't learn how to manage conflict in our own childhoods, so we're effectively starting from scratch. In the meantime, wait till the kid's out of the house to hash it out.