Parental conflict produces more than fleeting distress for children

In the latest issue of the journal Child Development, the team reported examining 223 children twice during a one-year period for their reactions to conflicts between their parents. First, their mothers and fathers participated alone in an exercise in which they attempted to manage and resolve a common point of disagreement. The researchers rated the parents' level of hostility or indifference to capture the characteristic ways that parents managed their conflicts. Then the children observed their parents working through two simulated telephone conversations: a short conflict and a resolution.

Researchers found that the ways parents managed conflicts in the exercise predicted how children responded to the simulated phone conflict--both within a two-week period and one year later. Parents who displayed high levels of discord had children who responded with greater than expected distress to the simulated phone conflict.

"The stressfulness of witnessing several different types of conflict may have long-term implications for children's functioning by directly altering their patterns of responding to those conflicts," says Patrick T. Davies, lead author and professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. "Our results highlight the possibility that several different types of conflict between parents may negatively affect the well-being of children over time," he says.

According to the authors, prior experiences with parental conflicts can alter the way children cope with later conflicts. "Conflict between parents may have distinct meanings and implications for the child and family system even after considering the effects of parenting difficulties," Davies points out.

Although previous work has shown that children don't get used to their parents discord but, instead, become more sensitive to it, Davies and his colleagues wondered if different forms of destructive conflict between parents played different roles in children's reactions. It d

Contact: Jonathan Sherwood
University of Rochester

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