Don't Argue in Front of the Kids -- If You Want Them to Be Able to Handle Their Emotions, That Is

Yet one more thing to feel guilty about.

Fighting parents hurt children's ability to recognize and regulate their emotions, according to a new study as reported by newswise.com.

Exposure to verbal and physical aggression between parents may hurt a child’s ability to identify and control emotions, according to a longitudinal study led by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. 

The findings also suggest that household chaos and prolonged periods of poverty during early childhood may take a substantial toll on the emotional adjustment of young children.

“Our study points to ways in which aggression between parents may powerfully shape children’s emotional adjustment,” says C. Cybele Raver, professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author, at newswise.com. “Arguing and fighting is psychologically stressful for the adults caught in conflict; this study demonstrates the costs of that conflict for children in the household as well.” 
 
Research has demonstrated that exposure to conflict and violence in the home can shape children’s neurobiological, cognitive, and behavioral responses, newswise.com notes. Increased hypervigilance may support children’s safety in the short term, but can be detrimental for their long-term emotional adjustment. For instance, children who hear or witness their parents fighting may have trouble regulating their emotions in less risky situations, such as a classroom. 

While earlier research established a link between parental conflict at a single point in time and children’s adjustment later in life, the study's research team saw a need to explore how children may be adversely affected by prolonged exposure to this aggression.

 In the study, the researchers measured children’s exposure to several forms of adversity, and how they predicted their ability to recognize and regulate negative emotions, such as fear and sadness. The researchers followed 1,025 children and their families living in eastern North Carolina and central Pennsylvania, two geographical areas with high poverty rates. 

Verbal and physical aggression between parents from infancy through early childhood significantly predicted children’s ability to accurately identify emotions at 58 months of age. Higher exposure to physical aggression between parents was associated with children’s lower performance on a simple emotions labeling task. Surprisingly, higher exposure to verbal aggression was associated with greater emotion knowledge among the children.

Prolonged exposure to aggression between parents was also linked to children’s ability to regulate their own feelings of sadness, withdrawal, and fear, placing them at greater risk for symptoms of anxiety and depression later on.

So parents, the next time you get mad your spouse didn't take out the garbage or fix your favorite meal, simmer down.  Remember, the kids are watching.

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