Stress and Your Child: How our arguments affect our children

As parents, we do everything we can to create a nurturing and supportive environment for our children.  We make sure they eat vegetables and we take them to the library.  We try to buy organic, we read nutrition labels, and we transport them back and forth to practices. But do we think about the stress that we cause through our relationships with our spouses or significant others? The impact of marital discord and arguing has been measured, and the results are not pretty.  Observing parental discord has been shown to create cognitive, emotional, and health issues in children.  How?  Well, stress itself is known to have immensely negative effects on kids.  Studies have shown that adverse experiences in childhood result in increased levels of smoking, severe obesity, physical inactivity, depressed mood, suicide attempts, alcoholism, use of illicit drugs, ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, history of hepatitis or jaundice, and poor self-rated health when those children grow up. The stressful experiences measured in those studies were extreme and included stresses such as sexual, mental and physical abuse.  But follow-up studies have focused on the impact of parental arguing on children and results point to marital discord being more influential in creating adverse experiences for children than divorce or parental separation, household mental illness, or household substance abuse.  In fact, parental arguing has been shown to lead to poor behavior and aggression, social and cognitive competence, and depression and suicidal tendencies in children. And if that isn’t enough to alarm you, a recently published study shows that not only can infants hear and sense anger, but also their responses to anger depend on the level of marital harmony in the household.  These results imply that our actions can lead our children, even during infancy, to become sensitive to anger and stress when they are subjected to it more frequently.  Pretty scary stuff.  But the research isn’t all bad news. Studies show that it’s not disagreement, but the open display of conflict, that is the concern. Something to keep in mind when discussing hot topics with your significant other…

What the research says:

I sometimes try to envision our lives 10 years from now, when the kids are off to college (fingers crossed) and my husband and I are empty-nesters. I imagine the conversations we’ll have with our children in that future world.  I’m hopeful that I won’t be reminding them about wearing a jacket, but I fear I will still feel the urge to ask about their teeth.  I wonder how they’ll remember our time together. Will they remember us as a happy family? Or will they focus on the stressful times, when we argued over homework or about the swimsuit that was left in the YMCA locker after swim practice?  Will they remember my husband and I as a loving couple? Or will they remember the marital tension that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with having children and busy lives?  Will their memories of us be fond or stress-filled?

Then I heard a mesmerizing story on NPR.  It was a segment summarizing a study published in March 2013 about the impact of anger on babies.  It scared the heck out of me.  Scientifically, the study measured the response of infants to marital conflict.   But on a grander scale, it illuminated the fact that we impact our children in ways that we could never imagine.

My parents never argued in front of my brothers or me.  Never.  Don’t get me wrong; we knew when my mom was mad at my dad, or when they were not on speaking terms.  In those moments of parental discord, my mom was known for making dinner and setting the table for everyone BUT my dad.  But they never argued or raised their voices in front of us.  I wasn’t able to appreciate that until we had kids, and now raising my voice seems to be in an involuntary reaction at times.

You may be wondering how the topic of parental discord relates to the research being done on babies? Well, the study about babies measures the impact of parental discord on the brain of babies.  And I wondered, how much is known about the impact of parental arguing on children?  So I did a little searching, and I realized that there’s a wealth of data documenting the relationship between parental discord and poor outcomes in children. The studies examine many things, including the influences of experiencing the stress caused by parental arguing on future behavior, health, and longevity.

You would probably guess that, given a choice, arguing in front of your children would not be ideal.  And most of us would acknowledge the negative impacts of stress on the health and well-being of adults.  But the extent to which stress influences our children well into adulthood is overwhelming. And though it’s probably impractical to assume that we can ameliorate parental discord, it is helpful to understand the impact it has on our children. 

How does stress affect our children?

Stress may be the most important determinant of future success for children.

We all know that stress has negative effects on the health and longevity of adults.  But have we ever considered the negative impacts of stress on children? A large series of clinical studies called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study were conducted with that purpose in mind. The hypothesis of these studies was that “adverse childhood experiences create a burden of psychological stress that changes behavior, cognitions, emotions, and physical functions in ways that promote subsequent health problems and illness” [10].  The study assessed, “retrospectively and prospectively, the long-term impact of abuse and household dysfunction during childhood” on various outcomes of adults [8].  And the results have been startling.   Children who experienced more ACEs (things such as psychological, physical or sexual abuse, and household dysfunction) were shown to have increased incidence of and risk for smoking, severe obesity, physical inactivity, depressed mood, suicide attempts, alcoholism, use of illicit drugs, ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, history of hepatitis or jaundice, and poor self-rated health as adults [1-11].  So experiencing stressful events as a child seems to lead to many things, including poor health, emotional difficulties, and addiction when the child grows up.

The stress of parental arguing has been shown to create cognitive, emotional, and health issues in children. 

The experiences measured in the ACE study were extreme. Sexual abuse, mental abuse and physical abuse.  But studies have also shown the impact of “parents always arguing” on children [10].  In fact, statistical results show that marital discord and arguing are more influential in creating adverse experiences for children than divorce or parental separation [10,23], household mental illness, or household substance abuse [10].  Studies have also shown thatchildren exposed to hostility between parents are vulnerable to an array of psychological and physical health problems, including poor behavior and aggression [19], social and cognitive competence [23], and depression and suicidal tendencies [18].

Babies hear and sense anger, and their responses depend on the level of marital harmony in the household [12].  

Don’t think that you’re safe if your children are really young or are sleeping during your arguments.  Researchers completed a study to determine if sleeping babies responded differently to angry or calm voices, and wanted to see if those responses could be explained by differences in brain activity.  Sleeping babies that were 6-12 months old were placed inside fMRI machines while researchers played statements with varying degrees of emotion (anger, sadness, happiness, etc.)  The infants reacted to angry tones, and their responses were different based on the level of parental discord in their households.  Babies with mothers who reported higher levels of disharmony in their households displayed “greater neural responses to very angry… speech across several brain regions implicated in emotion and stress reactivity and regulation” [12].  A complicated way to say that specific regions of the babies’ brains (those responsible for emotion and responding to stress) had heightened responses when hearing words in an angry tone.  So not only did sleeping babies respond to anger, but babies in more conflicted environments had elevated responses in regions of the brain responsible for emotions and stress.  Does this imply that we can condition our children, even during infancy, to become sensitive to anger when they are subjected to it more frequently? That could be one explanation.

But there’s one important thing to keep in mind.  It’s not disagreement, but the open display of conflict, that seems to be the concern.  “Conflict of which children were not aware was not associated with behavior problems” [23].  In fact, couples who have low levels of marriage satisfaction but who didn’t display conflict in front of their children were not associated with child problems, as “openly expressed marital conflict is more closely associated with child problems than is marital dissatisfaction” [23].  “Similarly, child problems were found to be more highly associated with unhappy marriages that were quarrelsome, tense, and hostile than to unhappy marriages characterized by apathy and indifference” [23].  

What does this all mean?

If you’re like me, you probably do everything you can to create a nurturing and supportive environment for your children.  We make sure they eat kale, broccoli and other interesting vegetables.  We find time to take them to the library and bookstore.  We try to buy organic and read nutrition labels.  We transport them back and forth to practices of various types.  We even request parent-teacher conferences to talk about their academic progress.  But do we think about the stress that we cause when arguing with our significant others?  Disagreements happen. But perhaps we can reconsider how we disagree.  At a minimum, it is important to understand that stressful experiences may influence on our children’s future success more than trips to the library or another portion of kale.


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