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  • Márcia Fervienza

Divorce May Not Be As Damaging to Kids as Parental Conflict, New Research

Broken family drawing

Recent research on parenting found out that no matter what you do as a parent, the chances are that you will mess up.

Just kidding.

But, actually, not really!

In a study conducted to evaluate if and how parents’ arguments affect the child’s long-term mental health, wellbeing, and development, it was found that:

  • The way arguments affect children varies widely according to the child’s personality (nature) and past experiences (nurture)

  • The relationship between a parent and a child affects the level of impact that arguments between parents have on the child

  • The way parents argue or fight also has an impact on the way the child is or isn’t affected by it

  • Bad relationships tend to be adopted as a model and hence can be passed on from one generation to the next

Apparently, even when parents argue “in private,” or if they don’t argue but act coldly towards one another, children as young as six months old can sense that something is wrong and show physical/emotional responses to it. When measuring physical signs of stress on children exposed to severe or chronic inter-parental conflict, researchers found in infants an increase in heart rates and on levels of stress hormones in the blood. On the other hand, older children showed signs of anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances and conduct disorders, among others.

The stress response that children show to arguments is so relevant that researchers are speculating if, in fact, it is the conflictive period that precedes divorces that actually hurt them, and not the divorce itself. That is because kids in the study were affected by parental conflict even when the parents were living in different houses. So, researchers wonder, maybe the problem is less about handling the divorce and more about managing the period that precedes the decision.

But if arguing is a natural part of any relationship and if kids can sense that something is off even when the arguing is done in private, how can parents protect their children?

One particular concern of young children is whether the conflict between their parents can put the family’s stability – and their own – at risk. And it seems that being able to understand the causes and consequences of conflicts may help alleviate that concern. Thus, as soon as they can understand, parents are encouraged to try to explain (in an appropriate language) what the argument was about, and to share the conflict resolution as well. It is okay to name feelings (“Mommy was angry”) and explain the reason for them (“because daddy didn’t put the trash away”). It is also important to let them know what brought closure to the issue (“but daddy promised he wouldn’t do that anymore, so now mommy is happy again”).

I know, “our parents never did that, and here we are, healthy and functioning adults.” As a coach, I will dispute the “healthy and functioning” part of the statement, but I get the point. However, life is about evolution. And if there may be a way to make things better, why not try? Even though it may seem inappropriate, this particular study showed that children of all ages are smarter and more attuned to their surroundings than we think. Thus, helping them have a grasp on what happens around them may be helpful to reduce anxiety and give them a sense of control over their environment (their family life), which is so essential at their early years.

What else can you do to help promote the mental wellbeing of your children?

I am glad you asked. :-) Here are a few tips:

1. Attachment, attachment, and attachment. Bond with your child and help them bond with you. Learn to read their cues, moods, smiles, and stares. Help them use their words to communicate their feelings when they can but be able to read their feelings all over them way before that. The more the child feels that they can communicate with you (verbally and non-verbally), the more they feel you get them, and the safer they will feel. Likewise, allow them to learn how to read you by being consistent with your actions and behaviors. Let them learn what makes you happy and what you don’t like. Let those things be the same day in, day out. Be consistent with everything, especially during (roughly) the first three years of their lives (or their first 1,000 days). That will set the tone for every single relationship of their lives. So, be generous with your presence and constant on your affection during those days.

2. Be on top of your own mental health. Have you been anxious or depressed? Have you been unhappy at work or in your marriage? Don’t kid yourself pretending that as long as you care for your little one, they will be fine, because if you are doing step one right, they will know that something is going on inside of you, regardless of what you say or do. And they will absorb the negative of that no matter how hard you try to protect them. To be able to give them your best, you have to feel at your best. And parenting is hard, especially when we didn’t have good parents ourselves. So, don’t spare on caring for your mental health. Your little one needs it more than you can imagine.

3. Allow room for nothingness. Growing up in a high-achieving culture isn’t easy. So, as parents, we try to do everything we can to prepare our children for the competitive future they have ahead of them. And while that may be necessary to some extent, that is also the reason why so much anxiety, depression, and ADHD in children and teens have developed in the past decades. So, allow your kid time to do nothing, or to choose what to do, as they please. Let them fill that space as they wish. Allow time for free play, screen time (yes, if they so please, why not?) and introspection. How? Help them get in touch with their own feelings (“I don’t want to go out today”) and needs (“I am tired”). Help them connect feelings and needs. Help them look inwards and pay attention to what goes on in their bodies and minds. Share your feelings and needs in a language that they can understand – it will help create a connection. Have a structure and stick to a schedule (they need it) but be flexible and listen to the feelings they communicate to you. When we listen, they feel seen and validated, and we all need it. Plus, that will teach them to listen to themselves, even when no one else will.

4. Have fun with them and enjoy their company. They will notice it, and that will be another stepping stone in building long-lasting healthy self-esteem, while building incredible memories. Certainly, a win-win.



How parents' arguments really affect their children, by Prof Gordon Harold, University of Sussex

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