University of Rochester

When Parents Argue, Children Can Cope if They Feel Secure

December 23, 2002

Parental arguments are stressful to children, but children show considerable variability in how well they cope with the conflicts, according to research in the current issue of the journal Child Development.

Researchers Patrick T. Davies of the University of Rochester and Evan M. Forman of Drexel University sought to identify differences between children in their reactions to conflict in two studies. Davies and Forman studied 56 elementary school children and 170 early adolescents separately, and grouped them into three categories:

Secure children showed mild, appropriate concern about parental conflicts, and optimistic expectations about the future for themselves and their family. Children considered "insecure-preoccupied" exhibited high levels of distress, actual involvement in the conflicts, and negative expectations about the effects of the conflicts on their future. Children identified as "insecure-dismissing" displayed visible signs of considerable distress, involvement in the conflicts, but denied experiencing any distress.

Of the three groups, the middle group of preoccupied children was at greatest risk for displaying emotional problems, such as depressive symptoms and anxiety, the researchers said. They also found that the third group of children had histories of more severe parental conflict, parenting difficulties, and family problems. These children who dismissed or downplayed the threat of conflicts were at risk of disruptive behavior problems, such as aggression and delinquency. Together, these insecure children were more likely than secure children to worry and disengage during times of family stress.

Research has shown that children experience an increased risk for developing psychological problems if they are surrounded by high levels of parental conflict. Studies continue on why these conflicts have such an impact.

"In contrast to the insecure groups, secure children witnessed minimal levels of destructive family conflict," reported Forman and Davies, who is associate professor in the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology at Rochester. "Experiencing constructive parental conflict within a broader constellation of family relations maximizes children's confidence in their parents to repair, maintain, or improve family relations when disputes arise."

In the first study, children six to nine years old observed a short, simulated conflict between a female research assistant and the mother in a playroom. The conflict was followed by a three-minute, post-conflict period when the research assistant was not present. Children's responses during and after the conflict were videotaped and coded for child distress and involvement.

The children also were interviewed about their subjective emotional responses and impulses to intervene in the conflict. Later, these children listened to a simulated verbal conflict between a man and a woman on audiotape. After imagining that the conflict took place between their parents, the children then answered questions to assess their perceptions of the implications conflict has for their welfare and their families.

The second study solicited information from young teens and their mothers about reactions to actual parental conflicts. In both studies, the subjects were primarily white and middle class. About 87 percent were raised in two-parent families.

Findings by Davies and Forman point to the importance of creating prevention programs that understand how children cope and function within the entire family.

"Right now, many prevention and intervention programs for children are narrowly focused on the characteristics of the child or parent-child relationship," said Davies. "Our discovery of links between the quality of family relationships and children coping with conflicts between parents suggests that it may be useful to consider broader family interaction in programs designed to help children cope."