This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series
Kids may not seem to hear you when you tell them to eat their vegetables, but they listen when parents fight.
And it doesn’t have to be a screaming, knock-down, dragged-out fight. Even constant low-level bickering is harmful. Kids who witness daily skirmishes between their parents have a hard time processing emotions.
A new study from Cardiff University confirms earlier research by John Gottman and E. Mark Cummings of Notre Dame. There have been hundreds of peer-reviewed papers on this issue spanning decades of research. The developmental science is crystal clear. Fighting in front of your kids can cause serious harm to their physical, emotional and developmental well being.
Dr. Gordon Harold, a researcher at Cardiff University in Cardiff, Wales says parents can have differences of opinion in front of their kids. But how you do it on a regular basis is giving not only giving your children a life-long lesson in how to manage conflict with intimate partners, it is impacting their health as well.
Dr. Harold explains. “It would be unrealistic to say that, you know, parents should never argue or should never disagree in front of their children. Arguments and disagreements are a natural part of all relationships.” However, after conducted a three-year study of more than 300 families, how you do it matters.
Researchers showed children videos of adults engaged in different styles of arguing. The researchers then asked the kids about the kind of fights they saw their parents have at home. They found even argument that have nothing to do with your kids, but are destructive and unregulated threatens children’s emotional stability.
Multiple studies over the past several decades have told us that when children feel threatened emotionally, they will show showing predictable increases in depression, anxiety, hostility, and aggression. John Gottman’s research shows that regular exposure to parental arguments produced serious side-effects in children that may be hard to detect at first.
Perhaps Gottman’s most shocking finding is that even infants are keenly sensitive to the relative happiness of their parent’s marriage. Gottman conducted a study of 50 couples who had 3-month-old infants. The research shows that when parents have a habit of fighting in front of the kids, children exposed to parental fighting showed a sharply lower capacity for concentration, joy and the ability to calm down as opposed to babies whose parents had thriving happy marriages. Gottman discovered that these babies had an accelerated heart rate.
Stress Hormones in Your Kids are a Window into Your Marriage
In yet another study, Gottman’s research team took urine samples every hour from 63 pre-schoolers over a 24-hour period. The 3- and 4-year-olds in homes in what Gottman as demonstrating significant levels of “marital hostility” had significantly higher levels of stress hormones than those children whose parents’ marriages were identified as being happy and stable.
The health consequences of this degree of ongoing emotional stress may not be known until years later. Research has shown that kids as young as 3 years old react to a conflict between parents. When children are upset by fighting or tension, they may act out in anger themselves. Sometimes they numb out into a dissociative trance or become very clingy.
When kids from these unhappy homes reach adolescence, the behavioral implications are abundantly clear. Gottman followed these kids through age 15. The research findings showed that children of distressed marriages had a significantly greater rate of depression, peer problems, poor grades, and behavior issues such as truancy. And they were also more aggressive.
On the other hand, research also tells us that kids whose parents are happily married couples are happier themselves as well. They have more friends, have better grades, are less likely to be troubled or depressed, and their overall behavior is markedly better.
Research suggests that these kids are more resilient because they are more emotionally secure. When children grow up in a happy home, they are more resilient and can bounce back from disappointments. They are more happy and confident in their outlook.
Research tells us that the intensity of the fighting in front of the kids, and the lack of repair is more impactful than just the number of fights the parents have. The fights that have the greatest negative impact on children are fights characterized by high levels of verbally or physical aggression.
Arguments that involve the children are the worst. What these fights all have in common is that they lead nowhere except into either icy silence or more fighting.
“Arguments that are dealt with effectively that are conducted calmly that show clear messages of negotiation and resolution have positive implications for children,” Dr. Harold reports. Children can also learn about effective conflict resolution from their parents.”
“We know now, however, that the ability for a parent to parent effectively is determined by the quality of that parent’s relationship with their spouse,” Dr. Harold says. “Couples that are happy and comfortable with each other in their relationship are more emotionally available and sensitive to the children and their needs than couples that are caught up or embroiled in conflict.”
Experts say even though fighting in front of the kids can be quite damaging, children can also be positively impacted by watching their parents respectfully and lovingly disagree. They learn that conflict with a significant other can be negotiated with compassion, understanding, and humor.
The takeaway from this research is that when a kid is having problems in school, it’s far more important that parents are offered help to improve their marital bond.
The research suggests that they need that a lot more than just getting help with their parenting skills.
Research shows that even low levels of bickering and fighting in front of kids have a lasting negative impact. Kids who witness daily skirmishes between their parents have a hard time processing emotions.
These kids grow up to be anxious, hyper-vigilant, and, perhaps most damaging, they tend to project their inner fear of conflict onto an interaction with their partner, even when the communication is neutral. Their brains are trained to expect a battle 24/7.
This new research tells us that shy, introverted kids are particularly vulnerable. This new research is critically important for couples therapists because it reveals that fighting in front of kids shapes them to accept conflict as a perpetual aspect of human relationships.
Kids, especially shy kids, are not as resilient as we once believed.
Dr. Alice Schermerhorn, the author of the study, was unequivocal. Her research shows that low-levels of constant conflict and fighting in front of kids echoes through time.
Here’s how they designed the study. Around 100 children between the ages of 9 to 11 were divided into two groups. These groups differed based on how much fighting in front of kids was going on in their families. These kids were shown pictures of couples engaged in either happy, angry or neutral conversations.
The children where fighting in front of kids was the norm were much more likely to misread the neutral photos as either happy or angry. They were often not even sure. Neutrality was a foreign concept to them. Dr. Schermerhorn points out that this emotional blindness activates a stance of wariness and hyper-vigilance.
Fighting in front of kids shapes children to be hyper-vigilant for any signs of trouble in relationships. This impacts their relationships with peers, teachers, everybody really.
These kids tend to interpret neutral interactions as angry, or may merely experience increased difficulty processing emotional information.
They may also be more attuned to angry conversations, which could be a cue for them to retreat to their room.
They are also on the look-out for the rare happy interactions, which could signal that their parents are emotionally available to them. But because of how their brains have been shaped, neutral parental conversations fail to convey sufficient information. Consequently, their ability to recognize a neutral discussion may be so massively impaired as to render true neutrality as utterly unrecognizable.
Here’s the vital information for couples’ therapists. Shy children were particularly challenged by the picture of the neutral conversation. Dr. Schermerhorn warns us:
“Parents of shy children need to be especially thoughtful about how they express conflict.”
Low levels of bickering and fighting in front of kids can have a severe and lifelong impact on kids. Dr. Schermerhorn warns us about a later-in-life “gap in perceptual inventory”:
“One the one hand, being over-vigilant and anxious can be destabilizing in many different ways….On the other, correctly reading neutral interactions may not be important for children who live in high conflict homes, but that gap in their perceptual inventory could be damaging in subsequent experiences with, for example, teachers, peers, and partners in romantic relationships. No one can eliminate conflict altogether, but helping children get the message that, even when they argue, parents care about each other and can work things out is important.”
We learn how to be intimate partners from our parents. We now know that how we show up with our spouses today has a great deal to do with how our parents rolled back in the day.
What we do matters. What we do echoes through time.
Fighting in front of kids at a low-level may seem par for the course for you now. But long after the bitter nagging and bickering have ended, your kids and grandkids will carry the burden into the future.
8. Gottman’s Four Horsemen9. Nagging10. What is Contempt?11. Defensiveness12. What is Stonewalling?13. My Husband and I Argue Everyday!14. Escalating & Time Out15. Effects of Angry Parents on Children
16. The Art of an Apology17. How to Repair Your Relationship18. More than “I’m Sorry…” Repair Attempts19. Conflict Avoidance in Relationships20. Gottman Style Fight Autopsy21. EFT Style Fight Autopsy22. The Developmental Model Fight Autopsy
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.