It’s clear that children are affected by their parent’s emotions. In fact, studies show that even in the womb, developing babies are affected by the stress that their mothers experience. That’s why few parents want their children to hear them arguing. However, new research suggests that parental arguments can be constructive if they are handled in a certain way. Keep reading to learn more about when parental arguments can be constructive and when they aren’t, how marriage therapy can help.
Constructive vs. Destructive Conflict
Olena Kopystynska, a graduate student from the University of Arizona, investigated how children feel after being exposed to conflict between their parents. Her study focused on two different methods of dealing with conflict: constructive and destructive.
Here’s the difference — In constructive conflict management, there is calmness and respect, despite a difference in opinion. The conflict stays focused on one topic and progress is made toward a resolution. On the other hand, when conflict is handled destructively, there is anger and resentment and the argument often strays off-topic to things that may have happened in the past. These conflict management styles have been found to affect young children in very different ways.
Kopystynska’s study hypothesized that when even one parent handles conflict with a partner destructively, it can leave children feeling more emotionally insecure about their home life — “Children are very good at picking up on little nuances of how parents interact with each other, so it really matters how parents express and manage their daily life challenges because that determines children’s confidence in the stability and safety of their family,” she said.
“If parents are hostile toward each other, even children as young as three years old may be threatened that their family may be headed toward dissolution. They may not necessarily be able to express their insecurities verbally, but they can feel it.”
Studying Parental Communication Styles
In order to prove her claims, the study was conducted with national data from the Building Strong Families Project which aimed to stabilize relationships in low-income families to invoke a better future for their children. This data was studied because of the population’s high risk for conflict due to the many stresses associated with financial strife. Parents in the study were mostly unmarried and had just conceived their first child at the start of data collection.
Kopystynska concentrated on children who were three years old. Mothers and fathers were asked to share their perceptions about how they manage conflict with each other, and how their children are affected emotionally when they witness conflict between them.
The researchers also looked at supportive behaviors such as positive statements, sensitivity to a child’s needs, and engagement with the child in cognitively stimulating ways. In addition, they concentrated on harsh parenting behaviors which included the expression of anger or dissatisfaction towards a child. These behaviors were measured by direct observation of each parent separately interacting with his or her child.
Kopystynska inferred that “…when parents [use] constructive conflict management, the children feel less insecure about their family climate, and when at least one parent argues destructively, there are some levels of insecurity about the family relationships,” (Kopystynska).
Parents were harsher toward their children when they handled conflict in a destructive manner. As a result, children’s emotional insecurity was higher. Overall, parents who had constructive ways of handling conflict were better at communicating with the whole family and their children had high levels of emotional security when it came to their family relationships.
It was concluded that it is important for parents to be aware of how they interact with each other and remember that conflict doesn’t necessarily need to be avoided but should be handled in a way that makes a child feel less threatened.
“Not all conflict is bad — it’s about how you manage it,” Kopystynska said.
“Given that children are going to encounter conflict out there in the real world, exposure to some conflict can be beneficial. However, it’s really how parents handle that conflict that sets the tone for how safe children feel, and may further promote similar conflict management behaviors for when children are confronted with conflict of their own.”
Need a Healthier Communication Style? Marriage Therapy in Newport Beach Can Help
Arguments between parents don’t have to be hidden from children or avoided. In fact, conflict between parents that’s handled in a healthy way can help children navigate conflict as they get older. However, the way that arguments are handled is crucial to determining whether they are beneficial or destructive to their children’s well-being. Learning to communicate with your spouse in a direct and constructive manner is important for children to feel safe and stable in their homes.
If you and your partner are having trouble communicating in a constructive way, marriage therapy can help. Jennifer De Francisco, MPA, MSW, LCSW, is a marriage therapist in Newport Beach for couples at any stage in their relationship. Her approach provides a safe environment to open and honestly share thoughts and emotions. Through developing a positive, therapeutic relationship, you and your partner can interpret what is going on, both in your life and in the session, creating a better awareness within your relationship. Contact Jennifer De Francisco by calling (949) 251-8797 or make an appointment online.
Source: University of Arizona