For Your Child

Lasting Effects of Parents' Squabbles

Kindergarteners whose parents fight with each other frequently and harshly are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and behavior issues by middle school, a new study says.

Photo of man and woman pointing a finger at each other

But the study also shows that the children of parents who "fight fair" by controlling their emotions and resolving disagreements through constructive discussions aren't terribly bothered by conflict.

Study author E. Mark Cummings, Ph.D., at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., says it's not fighting that's the problem. It's how parents argue in front of their children that affects behavior.

Conflict's effect

"Conflict is part of life," Dr. Cummings says. "It affects children by affecting their sense of emotional security about the family."

Kids notice when parents work together to find solutions to problems and show positive emotions while fighting, he says. "If you don't always agree with your spouse, it's fine, as long as you can work it out constructively."

For the study, researchers followed 235 middle-class families from the Midwest and Northeast for seven years.

When the children were in kindergarten, parents were quizzed about problems at home - like finances and parenting - and then rated on their level of marital conflict and how much they criticized their spouse.

Changing dynamics

Researchers checked back with the children during seventh grade and learned that 36 couples had separated or divorced, and two fathers had died. Both kids and parents again answered questions about behavior and emotional health.

Dr. Cummings and his team learned that kids whose parents fought a lot when the child was in kindergarten felt less emotionally secure, or felt less safe and protected. Emotionally insecure kids were more upset and acted out more often by hitting or showing aggression during conflict, or reported feeling distressed by their parents' fights.

Kids who were less emotionally secure also had more symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as behavioral problems.

Teasing out the factors

Dr. Cummings says that previous marital conflict studies have shown links between family conflict and child behavior, but that he's trying to figure out just what aspects of conflict are the most damaging.

He says many people don't realize how much kids are affected by the relationship between two parents.

The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Child Development.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Academy of Pediatrics - Parenting Conflicts

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy - Managing Conflict During Divorce

National Association of School Psychologists - Divorce: A Parents' Guide for Supporting Children

August 2012

Cultivating Self-Esteem

Teens who grow up with high self-esteem are far less likely to abuse drugs or drink, compared with children who grow up without much sense of self-worth, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Here are several steps parents can take to help their children develop self-esteem:

  • Remember that the road to self-esteem begins in infancy and is nurtured throughout childhood, preadolescence, and adolescence by interaction with you and your partner, the environment, and an accumulation of successes along the way.

  • Listen carefully to your child when he or she is trying to tell you something - and make it clear that you're very interested. For example: Turn off the TV or put down the newspaper when the child speaks to you, and don't take phone calls during the conversation. Also, be sure to praise the child's efforts to communicate with you, whenever possible.

  • To teach self-respect, you must show respect at all times. Speak to your children, their siblings, and your partner with respect - even when you're upset or angry - and never give in to the temptation to shout or demean.

  • Focus on the positive. Praise a child's behavior when appropriate, but don't exaggerate. For children and especially adolescents, express confidence in their ability.

  • Enjoy your teenager while you can. Tap into his or her humor, energy, and creative sense of possibility. The odds are high that you'll get in touch with your own youthful side - often with delightfully unexpected results.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

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