Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Parent Conflict can lead to Child Behavior Problems

Earlier this month Cummings, George, McCoy and Daives (2012) published a study showing a longitudinal connection between parental conflict when children are in kindergarten and depression, anxiety and delinquent behavior of children in seventh grade. They followed a group of more than 200 families from kindergarten to seventh grade to examine various family processes. This particular article found that the more parents engage in conflict between each other around their kindergarten aged children, the more the child will have emotional insecurities (measured by emotional reactivity, conflict avoidance, behavioral dysregulation) by the second grade. As these emotional insecurities increase, they are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and/or delinquency by the time the child is in the seventh grade. 

All of the results were statistically significant and quite large (by statistical standards). The take home message for me as a therapist and father from this article is to properly model appropriate conflict at an early age and provide a safe environment for children's emotions early on. The key measures of parental conflict used in this research were stonewalling (conflict avoidance), physical aggression (intimidation by force), and frequency and severity of conflict. These conflict measures are all negative models for conflict. Stonewalling is a behavior often exhibited by the avoidant partner ignoring or walking away from an argument while the pursuing partner "chases" them to try to resolve the conflict. This can send the message that conflict is not good and should be avoided at all costs, regardless of how cooperative the other person may actually be. Physical aggression is a behavior in which a person tries to "win" an argument by mere force or intimidation. It is pretty clear to see that children raised in an environment dominated by stonewalling and aggression would have insecurities regarding their emotions. 

Lets say, you did use these "bad" techniques of conflict resolution and have changed your ways. The next step would be to provide a safe, inviting environment for emotions. Even if you worked hard on your relationship with your spouse and got rid of all of these bad conflict techniques, you would still want to provide some sense of emotional safety for your child's emotions to be able to help them heal from the previous examples of conflict modeling. A safe emotional environment would be one in which children are allowed to express difficult emotions without punishment. Children should not be punished for expressing emotions. But if they do a behavior while expressing emotions (i.e. slamming the door), pay attention first to the emotion they are likely feeling or trying to express and then teach them that slamming the door is not appropriate behavior. By paying attention to the emotion first, you are ensuring they don't feel like they are punished for having an emotion, rather they are being told that while all emotions are okay to feel and express, some behaviors are not. 

What do you think about these research findings? 
What are some ways you try to provide a safe emotional environment for your children? 

Cummings, E. M., George, M. R. W., McCoy, K. P. and Davies, P. T. (2012), Interparental Conflict in Kindergarten and Adolescent Adjustment: Prospective Investigation of Emotional Security as an Explanatory Mechanism. Child Development, 83: 1703–1715. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01807.x

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