When parents fight, children are usually affected. If parents can resolve their conflicts without behaving violently toward each other or speaking harshly, children are not as disturbed. They learn that conflicts can be resolved peacefully and relationships preserved, even when people strongly disagree with each other. When parents lash out or give each other the silent treatment, however, children are affected in many ways.
A bad relationship between parents even affects children during infancy, according to research reported by Science Daily in 2011. Researchers studied 350 families with babies who were 9 months old at the beginning of the study. In the families with a high level of marriage problems, the babies had more sleeping problems when they were 18 months old, either having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep. The researchers observed families with adopted children to rule out a biological disposition for sleep disorders and also ruled out other factors, such as birth order and the temperament of the child. "Parents should be aware that marital stress may affect the well-being of their children even in the first year or two of life," research associate Anne M. Mannering was quoted as saying in the report.
Science Daily also reported on children's school difficulties as related to parental conflict. Researchers studied a group of children for three years, beginning when the children were 6 years old. The children who reported concerns about how their parents got along with each other were at significantly higher risk for having problems paying attention; the problems began one year after the children reported their concerns. Researchers speculated the children may have developed the habit of diverting their attention from their current situation in order to deal with the chaos in their home environment.
Elevated Stress Hormones
Children who are upset by their parents' fighting have an elevated level of cortisol, a hormone related to stress. Science Daily reported that a 2008 study of 6-year-old children revealed elevated levels of cortisol after parents simulated an argument over the phone; the more upset children were, the higher their cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels cause many problems, including lowered immune system function; lowered bone density; increase in weight gain, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and risk of heart disease; difficulties with learning and memory; higher risk for depression and other mental health illnesses; and shorter life expectancy.
Problems in Teen Years
Unfortunately, a bad relationship between parents can affect a child for years. Researchers discovered that children whose parents engaged in frequent, harsh fighting when the children were in kindergarten experienced mental health and behavioral problems when they were in the seventh grade. The children experienced more depression, anxiety and emotional insecurity. The primary author of the study, Mark Cummings, professor of psychology at Notre Dame, said in an article for The Star that children were especially at risk when "their emotional insecurity increases as a result of the conflict."