As a family therapist, I see the severe impact of parental conflict on children. Especially in my teenage clients, exposure to marital conflict can exacerbate anxiety and depression. I've seen my higher-conflict couples clients worry about the mental health of their children, creating stress and thus more conflict between them.
You’ve probably heard that fighting in front of your kids can be damaging to their mental health. Researchers have long speculated on the mechanisms that explain why marital conflict affects kids so negatively. New research conducted by my colleagues and I may have found the answer. Our research shows that, in teenage children, marital conflict may cause an attention bias (a propensity to pay attention to certain things in the environment over others) that may lead to anxiety for years to come.
To conduct this research, 60 teenagers and their parents came into our laboratory. Parents participated in a conflict interaction task in which they discussed their relationship problems, which was videotaped and analyzed for destructive conflict behaviors (e.g., physical or verbal aggression) as well as constructive conflict behaviors (e.g., problem-solving, affection). By watching married couples complete this task in the lab, we can tell how negative conflicts generally tend to be for a given couple.
Teenagers in our lab viewed a series of images of couples interacting, viewing multiple images at a time. In some of the photos, the interaction was neutral, some were happy conversations, and some were angry conflicts. Using eye-tracking software, we tracked which photos the teens tended to look at and how long they spent looking at each one.
When we analyzed the results, we found that when spouses were more negative in their conflict, their teens spent less time looking at the happy-couple conversations. When spouses were less positive in their conflict, their teen spent more time attending to angry interpersonal interactions. These findings showed us that teens with high-conflict parents were more likely to have an attention bias away from happy-couple interactions and toward angry interactions. We also found that when parents displayed more negative marital conflict, teens had higher anxiety, but only when teens also displayed an attention bias toward angry interactions, suggesting that attention biases may account for the higher anxiety seen in many teenagers exposed to marital conflict.
When you fight in front of your teenage child, it threatens their sense of security. They may feel uncertain about the future of the family and about their ability to form safe relationships in the present or future. Threatening stimuli cause humans to become hypervigilant, looking out for potential threats to prepare for and protect ourselves against, thus causing disordered levels of anxiety. Although this study was cross-sectional, and thus we cannot draw definitive causal conclusions, this new research suggests that when your teenager is exposed to negative marital conflict, they may become hypervigilant to angry interpersonal interactions and tend to discount functional, positive interactions. Such an attention bias may lead to anxiety in your teen now or down the road.
If you find yourself caught in a negative cycle with your spouse, I urge you to consider working on how you handle conflict now. Couples therapy can help you restructure how you communicate to create greater understanding and a more satisfying bond. Changes you make now aren’t only for the both of you, but for generations to come.
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Lucas-Thompson, R. G., Lunkenheimer, E. S., & Dumitrache, A. (2017). Associations between marital conflict and adolescent conflict appraisals, stress physiology, and mental health. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 46(3), 379-393. l
Lucas‐Thompson, R. G., Seiter, N. S., & Lunkenheimer, E. S. (2020). Interparental Conflict, Attention to Angry Interpersonal Interactions, and Adolescent Anxiety. Family Relations.
Dadds, M. R., & Powell, M. B. (1991). The relationship of interparental conflict and global marital adjustment to aggression, anxiety, and immaturity in aggressive and nonclinic children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 19(5), 553-567.