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Parental Arguments Impede Emotional Development

Update Date: Sep 17, 2014 07:21 PM EDT

Fighting between parents can seriously hinder children's ability to recognize and regulate emotions, according to a new study.

Researchers at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, believe that household chaos and prolonged periods of poverty during early childhood could significantly impede emotional adjustment in young children.

"Our study points to ways in which aggression between parents may powerfully shape children's emotional adjustment," lead researcher C. Cybele Raver, professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt, said in a news release. "Arguing and fighting is psychologically stressful for the adults caught in conflict; this study demonstrates the costs of that conflict for children in the household as well."

The study also found revealed difference in neurobiological, cognitive and behavioral responses in children exposed to conflict and violence in the home.

While increased hypervigilance could support children's safety in the short term, researchers said it could be harmful for children's long-term emotional adjustment. Researchers explain that children exposed to parental arguments tend to have trouble regulating their emotions in less risky situations at school.

The study involved 1,025 children and their families living in eastern North Carolina and central Pennsylvania.

The children were monitored from two months old through 58 months of age. Parents were asked to fill out questionnaires that measured household chaos and stability. Researchers then assessed the children's ability to correctly recognize and identify emotions at the age of 58 months.

The findings revealed that higher exposure to physical aggression between parents was associated with children's lower performance on simple emotions labeling tasks. In contrast, higher exposure to verbal aggression was linked to greater emotion knowledge among children.

"This study shines a bright light on the importance of supporting parents as they navigate the ups and downs of partnership or marriage," says Raver. "Parents need help regulating their own feelings of anger, frustration, and worry when balancing the demands of work, family, and romantic partnership, especially when money is tight."

The findings are published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

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