A recently highlighted study about marital conflict and its impact on children shows that when parents bicker, but reach a swift and sincere resolution, kids are actually affected positively by the spat. E. Mark Cummings, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, was one of the lead researchers on the study and is the co-author of the book Marital Conflict and Children, which will be published by Guilford Press in January. Cummings spoke to Babble about his findings and why it doesn’t really matter how parents fight - as long as they make up.
You and your research partner Patrick Davies have done many studies over the years at the University of Notre Dame about marital conflict and children. What are your latest findings?
We’ve known that children are sensitive to marital conflict as young as six months of age, and that the impact on them has been linked to a risk for adjustment problems, problems in school and sleep problems. But we’ve now found that it’s not fighting that’s destructive, but how parents handle the fight. Conflict is unavoidable - in most marriages it can be a frequent, every day occurrence. Our key finding is that if parents handle the conflict well, meaning constructively, it’s not the anger that bothers kids, it’s when the anger threatens to negatively affect the family. In fact, if [parents] do work it out, many times kids come away with a positive emotion.
How did you gather your data? How do you test something like this?
Two ways. First, we gave parents diaries, which are really checklists, to record how the family is affected by an argument. They record what emotions they expressed, what they engaged in, and we get a record of what they do. Then they check off emotions they witness in the child. They’re going to have their everyday fights anyway, this way they just write down how the kids reacted - did they seem sad, scared, worried? Parents are actually good reporters, we’ve found. Sure, when you ask them how Bobby acted 22 years ago, they can be unreliable, but when you ask them to record everyday things, they’re good at it. We also have actors act out fights for children and then ask them, how would you feel if this were your parents? With younger children, we’ve measured the amount of cortisol in their saliva, which is a chemical produced by stress.
What age range do you look at?
We’ve looked at every age from one to 19. We’ve done studies with 300 families where the children are all the same age at the same time, and other studies that range from 5 to 18 years old. But the bottom line message we find over and over again: all ages are affected and find it stressing if conflicts are not resolved.
Does the style of argument matter? Whether the parents are screaming or giving each other the silent treatment?
Children are very aware of non-verbal anger. Overt anger is not always good either, but if you’re angry but not saying anything the only people being fooled by that are the parents. Kids don’t care about blow-ups - the style of fighting doesn’t matter, whether it’s the slow burn, or if you’re really angry or really loud. If parents work it out, the kids don’t care. They care about the meaning of the conflict.
We did a longitudinal study on how kids interpret it. If they’re in high-conflict homes where parents don’t work it out, they might try to intervene. That’s not a good thing - [if they're intervening], that means they’re more concerned about the security of the family than their own temporary well-being. If they don’t get involved, it’s a good indicator of their security, they know the parents will work it out. If parents get really loud it might be temporarily distressing to the child, but there is no long-term feeling about it. But you can’t pretend you’re working it out. Kids are not fooled if you’re pretending to get along.
What if the parents are fighting in front of the kids and then resolve the conflict behind closed doors? Do they have to make up in front of the kids?
We did a study on that too, actually. We asked the children who witnessed a fight between adult actors, how would you feel if they resolved the fight elsewhere? Do you need to see the resolution? We had two actors start to fight in front of the child and then in the middle of the fight go behind closed doors. Even a five year-old would say, they’re trying to work it out. Then the “parents” would come back and act okay and the children would say, I’m fine with this fight, they worked it out. Again, kids care about the emotional security meaning of what happens. They’re like Geiger counters, they can track a conflict. It doesn’t have to be resolved in front of them. Kids care about the emotional security meaning of what happens. They’re like Geiger counters, they can track a conflict.
You said that the style of fighting doesn’t matter – what about the substance? What if the conflict isn’t about a little everyday thing, like doing the dishes, but about something bigger, a greater emotional issue?
Kids definitely get more upset about personal relationship issues, or issues involving the child - if the child can interpret that he or she is at fault, they find that upsetting. If it’s something about how mom and dad feel about each other, it can still be worked out, but it is more upsetting. Especially if they feel they are being blamed for their parents’ feelings about each other.
One type of fight that is very upsetting to children is when parents talk about leaving each other. That registers as a threat to the security of the family, the home. So I’m not recommending that parents always fight in front of the kids. Just that we’ve found if things are handled constructively, and there is a positive outcome, children do better in school and with their peers. That doesn’t mean they should see everything.