*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on PsychCentral.
Few parents want their children to hear them arguing. But new research suggests it may be OK as long as the parents handle disagreements in a constructive way.
University of Arizona investigators looked at how parents manage conflict with each other, and the way in which this affects their parenting styles.
Olena Kopystynska, a graduate student in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and lead author on the paper, also investigated how emotionally secure children feel after being exposed to conflict between their parents.
Kopystynska’s study focuses 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 three 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.
Kopystynska and her co-authors identified four different profiles of the couples surveyed:
- couples in which both partners handled conflict constructively;
- couples in which both partners handled conflict destructively;
- couples in which the mother was more constructive and the father more destructive;
- and couples in which the father was more constructive and the mother more destructive.
The researchers also looked at supportive and harsh parenting behaviors, as measured through direct observations of each parent separately interacting with his or her child.
Researchers found that fathers’ 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.
“What we found is that when parents are using constructive conflict management, the children feel less insecure about their family climate, and when at least one parent argues destructively, there are some levels of insecurity about the family relationships,” Kopystynska said.
In general, Kopystynska said, it’s important for parents to be aware of how they interact with each other, and remember that conflict shouldn’t necessarily be avoided but handled in a way that makes a child feel less threatened.
“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.”