Parents, being at odds with one another is a normal thing, but according to a recent study, it's how you manage it that has an impact on your kids, not the spat itself.
In a new paper, University of Arizona researcher Olena Kopystynska looked at how the way parents handle conflict with each other affects their parenting"> parenting styles and how emotionally secure their children feel after being exposed to conflict between their parents.
Her study focused on constructive versus destructive styles of conflict management. In constructive conflict management, there is calmness and respect, despite a difference in opinion; the conflict stays focused on one topic; and progress is made toward a resolution. When conflict is handled destructively, there is anger and resentment, and the argument often strays off topic to things that may have happened in the past.
Kopystynska and her colleagues found that when even one parent handles conflict with a partner destructively, it can leave children feeling more emotionally insecure about their home life.
"Children are very good at picking up on little nuances of how parents interact with each other, so it really matters how parents express and manage their daily life challenges because that determines children's confidence in the stability and safety of their family," Kopystynska said. "If parents are hostile toward each other, even children as young as 3 years old may be threatened that their family may be headed toward dissolution. They may not necessarily be able to express their insecurities verbally, but they can feel it."
Kopystynska's study is based on national data collected for the Building Strong Families Project, which targeted low-income families -- a population that could be at high risk for conflict, given the many stressors associated with financial strife. Parents in the study were mostly unmarried and had just conceived their first child at the start of data collection, which was done in three waves.
Researchers also found that fathers' parenting"> parenting styles did not seem to be affected by how they managed conflict with their partners. In other words, fathers interacted with their children similarly in all profiles. Yet, mothers in the profile in which fathers handled conflict constructively and mothers handled conflict destructively tended to be harsher with their children than mothers in the profile in which both parents handled conflict constructively.
As far as the impact on children's emotional insecurity, researchers found that when one parent handled conflict destructively and the other constructively, children's emotional insecurity was higher than what was reported for children whose parents both handled conflict constructively.
Worth noting, Kopystynska said, is that despite a common misconception that most low-income families are at risk for dysfunctional behaviours, very few couples in the study were entirely destructive in their conflict management styles. In fact, only 3 percent of couples in the sample included two partners who handled conflict destructively, suggesting that most couples in the sample participated in healthy and positive conflict patterns.
The fact that the group in which both parents were arguing in destructive ways was so small might help explain one surprising finding of Kopystynska's study -- that emotional insecurity levels were lowest for children of these parents. Also contributing to that finding could be the fact that those couples may have broken up and physically separated from each other by the time the data was collected, meaning that children may not have been as directly exposed to their parents' interactions, Kopystynska said.
"Not all conflict is bad -- it's about how you manage it," Kopystynska said. "Given that children are going to encounter conflict out there in the real world, exposure to some conflict can be beneficial. However, it's really how parents handle that conflict that sets the tone for how safe children feel, and may further promote similar conflict management behaviors for when children are confronted with conflict of their own."
The study is forthcoming in the Journal of Family Psychology.