Stuck in the Middle: Parental conflict and kids' emotions

Parental ConflictA study in the new issue of the Journal of Family Psychology suggests that kids who get pulled into their parents' conflicts are at a higher risk for developing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Cheryl Buehler of the University of South Carolina and Deborah Welsh of the University of Tennessee followed over 400 11 to 14 year-olds over three years. Parents completed questionnaires rating their own and their spouse's tendency to "involve the child in disagreements" between the parents. They also rated their child's emotional difficulties and behaviour problems. Youth in the study provided information about their own emotions and behaviours as well. In addition, the parents were observed by the researchers, who rated marital hostility and "harshness" toward the youth.

The results indicated that kids whose parents bring them into their disagreements (a situation that the researchers called "triangulation") were more likely to report "internalizing problems," such as sadness, worry, loss of pleasure, feelings of worthlessness, social withdrawal, and physical symptoms without a physical cause. Ongoing triangulation was linked to more severe internalizing problems three years later, even above initially-reported difficulties - this is the first longitudinal study that I'm aware of that looked at the potential impact of triangulation. Including information from parents, youth, and observers makes these results pretty compelling!

It may not be surprising to readers that kids whose parents pull them into their arguments have emotional problems - Dr. G said more or less the same thing yesterday in his post on parental conflict. Buehler and Welsh had more to say, however. They also looked at the emotional reactivity of the young people, which they described as chronic stress and dysregulation of emotions and behaviour in response to parental conflict. Reactivity was the link between triangulation and depression/anxiety. That is, being pulled into their parents' arguments created chronic stress and emotional confusion for the youth, who then reported more depression and anxiety years later. Other researchers have proposed that the natural response for youth in these situations is to invest energy in maintaining the parents' marriage, at the expense of normal developmental tasks, such as increasing their independence.

What can parents do when they worry that their own relationship problems may be interfering with their child's development? Well, it's definitely important to be aware of the potential impact of parental conflict on the kids - it can be easy for parents to become so wrapped up in their own arguments that they fail to recognize their child's stress about the situation. There are a number of potential risks associated with raising children in a high-conflict environment - so here are a few suggestions for parents who want to shield their children from their own problems:

  1. Talk to someone outside the home. Your child can't be your source of support after an argument with your spouse - that's the definition of triangulation! You may feel angry and stressed, you may even be considering separation. It's important to make an effort to manage your reactions to these difficulties in order to reduce the amount of open conflict. You might have a friend in whom you can confide. It might be worth consulting a therapist to deal with your own emotions and to improve coping.
  2. Consider couples counseling or family therapy. Even if you're thinking about leaving your partner, an outside professional may be able to help you find ways to minimize the impact of an extremely stressful situation. Finding a therapist who has experience in working with children and youth might be particularly helpful.
  3. Help your child to deal with his or her emotional reactivity. The chronic stress associated with parental conflict can be hard on your kids. Improving their ability to manage their emotions and to cope with stress may be helpful, especially if you're having trouble reducing the number of arguments at home. Regular exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on stress, as has meditation or yoga. Your child might also benefit from counseling!

You can read more about Buehler & Welsh's study here.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.