Contrary to popular belief, witnessing arguments between parents may not always be bad for children. According to new research published in the Journal of Family Psychology, it’s how those arguments are handled that matters.
Children who witness constructive arguments between their parents may benefit from the experience. Compared to children whose parents engage in destructive argument patterns, children exposed to constructive disagreements were more emotionally secure.
Arguing in Front of Children: Conflict Style Matters
The study used data from the Building Strong Families Project, which focused on families with low incomes. These families face many stressors that put them at risk for conflict. Researchers analyzed data collected when children in the study were about 3 years old. Both mothers and fathers answered questions about how they managed conflict, as well as how their children reacted to conflicts between the parents.
The study defined constructive conflict as conflict in which couples stayed focused on a single topic and made progress toward a solution. Constructive conflict also meant avoiding anger and resentment and sticking to the present instead of bringing up past disputes.
Researchers identified the following styles of conflict management: relationships in which both partners managed conflict constructively; relationships in which both partners managed conflict destructively; and relationships in which one partner was more destructive than the other.
They found no correlation between conflict management style and parenting style. This suggests parents could behave lovingly with their children even when they were destructive with their partners. But even when parents were loving, children who witnessed destructive conflicts suffered. Compared to those who witnessed constructive conflict, children who had one destructive parent were more likely to feel emotionally insecure.
Why Some Conflict Can Be Beneficial
Researchers noted that levels of emotional insecurity were lowest among children whose parents both engaged in destructive conflict. This may be because the parents were more likely to separate by the time data was collected. The fact that so few parents fit into this group might also have skewed the data.
Though stereotypes suggest low-income families may have more constructive conflicts due to stress, the study found destructive conflict was relatively uncommon. Both partners were destructive in just 3% of families. More than half of couples both consistently argued constructively.
Therapists interested in supporting families, particularly low-income families, should consider that not all conflict is harmful. Instead, helping families discuss disagreements more constructively may benefit families and children.
- Kopystynska, O., Paschall, K. W., Barnett, M. A., & Curran, M. A. (2017). Patterns of interparental conflict, parenting, and children’s emotional insecurity: A person-centered approach. Journal of Family Psychology. doi:10.1037/fam0000343
- Parents: How you manage conflict has an impact on your kids. (2017, September 20). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170920131717.htm
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