Parents who fight in front of their children risk damage to the child’s ability to recognise emotion, a new study suggests.
Researchers from New York University (NYU) found that such children would also struggle to control their own emotions. Lengthy periods of poverty during early childhood could also have a detrimental effect on their emotional development.
The study, which was published in the academic journal Development and Psychopathology, analysed 1,025 children and their families. The subjects were from two geographical areas with high poverty rates: eastern North Carolina and central Pennsylvania.
Assessments were made from a series of home visits when the children were between two and 58 months old. Additional information was gathered through parent questionnaires and tasks set for parents and children.
After children reached 58 months, they were given a series of tests to find out how well they could recognise and identify different emotions.
Researchers found that the level of aggression in the household “significantly predicted” the ability of a child to correctly identify emotions when tested. They also found that children who experienced more aggression at home were more likely to develop anxiety and depression due to an inability to regulate feelings of sadness and fear.
C. Cybele Raver, a professor at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author, said the findings suggested that “aggression between parents may powerfully shape children’s emotional adjustment”.
She added that while fighting and arguing were “psychologically stressful” for the parents, the study “demonstrates the costs of that conflict for children in the household as well”.
The study adds to the growing range of data looking at the effect that parents have on their children. This would seem to back up the argument that, for some parents, getting a divorce is better for children than staying together and constantly fighting. In August, Prime Minister David Cameron supported this idea in a speech at a Relationships Alliance event. However, a study published in September suggested that even a friendly divorce can be equally damaging to children.