A tough day at work or simply being tired can trigger parental disagreements.

The Effect of Parents Fighting on a Kid's Development

by Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell

Parents who grew up in an unhappy home know all too well how unsettling, if not petrifying, it can be to a child when mom and dad fight. Kids might automatically suspect the worst case scenario when parents are in the midst of a heated argument -- fearing that the two people they most love might call it quits for good. Bickering parents can negatively disrupt a child's life.

1. Effects

It's sad and confusing for a child to hear mom and dad say hurtful things to each other. Ongoing parental disputes can rock a child's world, leaving him scared and feeling like his safety net is filled with holes. Worrying about parents fighting can make it hard for a child to get a good night's sleep or go to school, points out KidsHealth, a website published by the Nemours Foundation. Lack of sleep and missing class both have a negative impact on academic performance. Kids with parents who regularly have heated arguments tend to be struggle with low self-esteem and have poor peer relationships, as well as being more angry and hostile, explains the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children exposed to heated domestic disputes that turn violent are more likely to score lower on assessments of cognitive, verbal and motor skills.

2. Expert Insight

Yelling, screaming, kicking doors, as well as bone-chilling silence between parents, can damage kids emotionally, according to a study published in June 2012 in the journal Child Development. The study, involving 235 middle-class families, found kindergarteners whose parents frequently got into vicious battles were at a higher risk of becoming emotionally insecure by the seventh grade. The study participants were also more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and behavioral problems. Researchers noted, however, that troubles between parents didn't seem to particularly bother all the children in the study, assuming dad and mom worked out their problems in a constructive manner -- such as going to couples therapy -- rather than continually displaying fits of rage.

3. Long-Term Impact

Parental disputes can leave a lasting impression on children that can compromise their future happiness and ability to thrive. The Simmons Longitudinal Study, which began in the 1980s, followed the experiences of more than 300 kindergartners into adulthood, tracking them along the way and recording their childhood experiences. Researchers released observational findings every few years on how the lives of the participants had turned out. The latest update, published in March 2009 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, examined the long-term impact of the effects of parents fighting that included violent acts toward each other and their children. Participants interviewed at age 18 who reported physical violence at home had higher rates of mental and physical problems at age 30. Males exposed to domestic violence as kids are more likely to repeat the behavior as adults, while females are more likely to become victims.

4. Considerations

If you ask a child health expert, she will most likely suggest that divorce is better for a child's well-being than staying in a conflict-ridden, chronically unhappy marriage, points out HealthyChildren.org, an official website of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Occasional disagreements can happen in the best of marriages and don't necessarily suggest that parents should rush to divorce court for the sake of the child. Keeping your cool when ironing out your differences can help remind your child that her family is intact.

About the Author

Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell is a broadcast journalist who began writing professionally in 1980. Her writing focuses on parenting and health, and has appeared in “Spirituality & Health Magazine" and “Essential Wellness.” Hellesvig-Gaskell has worked with autistic children at the Fraser School in Minneapolis and as a child care assistant for toddlers and preschoolers at the International School of Minnesota, Eden Prairie.

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