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Violent Fights Between Parents Can Deeply Affect Kids Emotionally: Study

Update Date: Jun 16, 2012 05:36 PM EDT

A child is more likely to grow up as an emotionally insecure individual if his/her parents have had harsh and frequent fights during kindergarten years, according to a study. A child like that struggles with depression, anxiety and behavior issues by 7th grade, say the study authors.

Children are not deeply affected by parental fights if only the fights are not violent, there is no harsh criticism, and if the problems are handled in a calm and constructive way.

The researchers say that the key to bringing up well-adjusted kids is not by having a perfect, conflict-free marriage. Instead parents should keep emotions in control and should avoid fights that threaten the stability of the family.

"Problems occur every day. But if parents try to work it out, if they come up with a resolution or work toward it, if the parents show positive emotion when they are in the middle of fighting, if they say nice things to each other or are affectionate, kids see all these things as very positive, and it changes how kids see the conflict," said study author E. Mark Cummings, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind according to Health Day.

For the research, 235 middle-class families (average family income between $40,000 and $60,000) from the Midwest and Northeast United States were studied by researchers.

The research was conducted in a span of several years. When the children were in kindergarten, parents were asked about their level of marital conflict. Parents were also asked the potential reason for their fights like finances or parenting. Researchers rated how critical they were of their spouse.

Seven years later, the children were followed up, when they reached 7th grade. By that time, 36 couples separated or got divorced, and two fathers died. The parents and the children were again asked questions pertaining to behavior and emotional health.

The study results revealed that children whose parents fought most frequently grew up to be less emotionally secure and sensed a lack of safety and protection.

Also, emotionally less secure children were found to have more mental health issues like depression and anxiety, along with behavioral problems.

"Conflict affects children by affecting their sense of emotional security about the family. A child has a sense of security or well-being, and if they don't have that they feel distressed emotionally, are more prone to aggression and hostility," Cummings said.

"Conflict is part of life. If you don't always agree with your spouse, it's fine, as long as you can work it out constructively. A lot of people don't realize how much kids are affected by the relationship between the parents, not just the relationship of the parents to the kids. Kids' feelings about themselves and their family have to do with how the parents relate to each other as well as to the child," he added.

Although an association between interparental conflict and emotional security in children was found through the study, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship, says the report.

The researchers have not considered certain factors in the study. Children with mental health or behavioral issues might themselves be the reason for a rough marriage. Also, the impact of divorce between couples during the course of the study has not been taken into the account by the researchers.

"Although it's not surprising that marital stress is associated with later emotional and behavioral difficulties in children in adolescence, the study fails to adequately control for important possible other plausible explanations or contributing factors," Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park, said.

The study was published in the journal Child Development.

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