Disagreements are an inevitable part of relationships, according to “Children and Marital Conflict: A Review,” a 2012 article by Brad Faircloth, Ph.D., published in “CASEmakers,” a Center for the Advanced Study of Excellence in Early Childhood and Family Support Practices publication. However, there is a difference between engaging in a disagreement in a civil, controlled manner and full-out arguing. Arguing tends to be louder. Control can slip during heated arguments. There can be yelling, crying and, in some families, even violent behavior. The aftermath of tension and silence can be just as bad. Arguing around toddlers can affect them in a variety of ways, none good.
Arguing around toddlers, such as during their nap times or while they are sleeping at night, can disrupt their sleep in the most literal sense. Naturally, this can lead to irritability and poor behavior. However, that isn't the only way that arguing around toddlers can disrupt their sleep. Research published in a 2012 “Journal of Family Psychology” article entitled "Marital Hostility and Child Sleep Problems: Direct and Indirect Associations via Hostile Parenting" connected toddlers being reared in an atmosphere of marital conflict with sleeping disorders at 4 and 5 years of age. The study was based on “linked triads of birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted children,” so as to account for genetic factors. Based on the design of the study, researchers were able to make the connection between arguing around toddlers and later sleeping problems.
Faircloth, in his “CASEmakers” article, says the way parents handle conflict has the most influence over how it will affect children. According to the article, children from 6 months of age and up can be affected by conflict in their environment. When conflict is managed in ways that maintain the family bond, children tend to be more emotionally secure. However, when toddlers are around frequent, angry outbursts of conflict, they can "become sensitized to marital conflict, making them more vulnerable to its effects." The instability of the relationship between parents can contribute to emotional insecurity in the same way that a loving, stable marital relationship creates a sense of emotional stability in young children.
“Marital Conflict, Parenting and Toddler Conduct Problems,” a study led by Ernest N. Jouriles of the University of Houston Department of Psychology and published in the “Journal of Abnormal Psychology,” cited a number of previous studies establishing the relationship between marital conflict and aggressive behavior in preschool children, including the published and peer-reviewed work of Jeanne H. Block, et al., of the University of California at Berkeley. The work of his research team supported those findings. A study published in a 2011 “Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry” went a bit further, using families with adopted toddlers to help control for genetic influences. Arguing around toddlers can contribute to those toddlers arguing more with their parents and being verbally aggressive with siblings and playmates. Toddlers haven't quite developed the capacity to express anger and frustration fully through their words. That can lead to physically aggressive behavior, more common in male toddlers than female.
Impact Quality of Parenting
Arguing can affect the quality of parenting. Arguing can be emotional, leaving people feeling angry, sad, anxious or depressed, so parents may not always be at their best. It can be difficult to meet the needs of a toddler in that frame of mind, especially when the child may be needier than usual because of the conflict. The rare incident isn't going to ruin a child, but when arguing becomes frequent and distracted parenting becomes a pattern, problems can arise. Ongoing, unresolved conflict, according to a 2006 “Journal of Family Psychology” article, by Melissa L. Sturge-Apple, et al., of the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology at University of Rochester, can result in periods of “parental emotional availability and “inconsistent discipline,” both of which can have immediate and long-term effects on a toddler's behavior and development. Striving to learn conflict resolution skills can protect the quality of the marital relationship and mitigate potential damage to toddlers.