Fighting in front of your children can not only have an immediate impact on their behaviour, but it may also have a lasting effect on their emotional wellbeing, according to new research.
While it has long been noted that children from conflicted homes tend to have learning and behavioural problems, the exact reason has remained a mystery.
Researchers from Auburn University in Alabama and Brown University in Providence suggest that the answer may well be that marital fighting disrupts children's sleep patterns, making them less attentive in class and more likely to act out.
In a new study published in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development the researchers monitored the sleep patterns of a group of children between the ages of 8 and 9, none of whom had been previously diagnosed with sleeping disorders. The researchers found that even though the children in higher conflict homes went to be bed at roughly the same time as their counterparts, they slept less and were more restless during the night. The more intense the child perceived their parents' fighting to be, the more restless the child's sleep became, according the study.
These children also reported being more tired during day.
"This is significant because even mild loss of sleep can disrupt attention, alter information processing, weaken motivation, increase irritability ad diminish emotion control," said the study's lead researcher, Mona El-Sheikh.
But it's not just in the short term that children are affected by their parents' fighting.
According to another study, published in the same journal, marital conflict has a significant effect on a child's self-esteem, which leads to the child developing depression, anxiety and behavioural problems.
"A useful analogy is to think about emotional security as a bridge between the child and the world," explained lead researcher Mark Cummings, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, in his report.
"When the marital relationship is functioning well, it serves as a secure base, a structurally sound bridge to support the child's exploration and relationships with others. When destructive marital conflict erodes the bridge, children may lack confidence and become hesitant to move forward."
In two different studies, Dr. Cummings and his research team monitored two test groups of children, one between the ages of 9 and 18, the second a group of kindergarteners. In both cases, the researchers noted that forms of destructive marital conflict, such as personal insults, defensiveness, sadness or fear, lead to insecurity and maladjustment, including depression, anxiety, and behavioural problems.
"[It]is a warning to strongly encourage parents to learn how to handle conflicts constructively," Dr. Cummings said.