Are You Fighting in Front of Your Kids?
New research suggests you should stop!
Posted Apr 19, 2018
For years I’ve found in clinical experience that the number one cause of children’s psychological problems (apart from severe abuse and neglect) is parents having arguments in front of their kids. How do I know that kids get emotionally disturbed, sometimes severely, when they hear their parents fighting? Simple. The kids tell me.
A shy seventeen-year-old girl named Emma, who was failing her high school classes after being a straight-A student throughout school, had been diagnosed with ADHD and was about to be tested for high functioning autism. When I asked her what the problem was, she replied immediately, “My parents have been quarreling. They are talking about divorce.” “How long has the fighting been going on,” I asked her. “My whole life,” Emma replied.
Parents often have difficulty understanding the connection between their arguments and a child’s diagnosis of ADHD or autistic spectrum disorder even when I tell them that my perspective has been shaped by more than two decades of clinical practice. “It’s more than Emma’s shyness and our quarreling,” insisted Emma’s mother. “She has a mental disorder. She would be diagnosed with Asperger’s if it still existed.”
“All Emma does is lock herself away in her room,” she continued.
“Perhaps she is retreating from the conflict all around her,” I reflected silently.
Yet, four months after intensive family and individual counseling, which included an ongoing commitment by her parents to keep their quarrels away from their daughter’s hearing while we worked on their marriage problems, Emma is getting better grades and has made progress in cultivating social relationships. She is becoming more resilient, not taking perceived slights and rejections as personally as she used to.
Now research is starting to investigate the relationship between having parents who fight and a young person’s ability to recognize and process emotions.
Previously, researchers found that severe early adversity, such as maltreatment and neglect, was associated with alterations in children’s recognition of emotion.
A new study, published March 13, 2018 in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, sought “to build on such findings by testing whether children’s exposure to inter-parental conflict, a much less severe form of adversity, is also associated with children’s emotion recognition.”
The study of 99 children aged 9-11 also considered shyness as a personality trait. Researchers found that even forms of adversity that are less severe than maltreatment and neglect have substantial implications for processing emotions, particularly for children with shy traits.
The lead researcher of the study, Alice Schermerhorn, assistant professor in the University of Vermont’s Department of Psychological Sciences, explains “Compared with abuse and neglect, inter-parental conflict is a less severe, less traumatic experience, but it is also more prevalent, and therefore has implications for a larger portion of the population.”
My recommendation: “Stop fighting for a month in front of your child. Have your arguments outside the house: go out to dinner, take a walk in the neighborhood, seek marriage counseling if the marital difficulties are severe.” I make this recommendation in my book A Disease Called Childhood based on many case examples of children diagnosed with ADHD. But my advice also applies to other emotional and social problems. When inter-parental conflict disappears, often a child’s mental health diagnosis disappears as well.
Schermerhorn, A. C. (2018). "Associations of child emotion recognition with interparental conflict and shy child temperament traits." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 0265407518762606. (Link)