Children who experience everyday conflict between their parents have problems processing emotions, new research shows.
These problems can cause anxiety and over-vigilance, leading them to see conflict even when an interaction is neutral.
Shy children are particularly vulnerable, the study also found.
Maltreatment and neglect have been shown to alter how children process emotions.
But this study shows a lower level of adversity can have a negative effect.
Dr Alice Schermerhorn, the study’s author, said:
“The message is clear: even low-level adversity like parental conflict isn’t good for kids.”
For the study, 99 children aged 9-11 were divided into two groups based on how much parental conflict they witnessed.
All were shown pictures of couples engaged in happy, angry or neutral interactions.
Those from high-conflict homes were more likely to see the neutral interactions as either happy or angry — they didn’t seem to know into which category they fitted.
Dr Schermerhorn said:
“If their perception of conflict and threat leads children to be vigilant for signs of trouble, that could lead them to interpret neutral expressions as angry ones or may simply present greater processing challenges.”
Alternatively, Dr Schermerhorn said:
“They may be more tuned into angry interactions, which could be a cue for them to retreat to their room, or happy ones, which could signal that their parents are available to them.
Neutral interactions don’t offer much information, so they may not value them or learn to recognize them.”
Parents of shy children found it hard to identify the neutral picture, Dr Schermerhorn explained:
“Parents of shy children need to be especially thoughtful about how they express conflict.”
Low levels of adversity in the home can have significant effects on children, Dr Schermerhorn said:
“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.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (Schermerhorn, 2018).