Conflict is a normal part of family life. Even spouses who generally get along well sometimes have disagreements. A particularly intense time – with greater discord – tends to be during the childrearing years. Researchers estimate that marital conflict rises by a factor of 9, on average, after couples make the transition to parenthood. A study found that parents seek to shield children from conflict in their relationships; marital arguments were about twice as likely when children were not present.
Alarmingly, however, conflicts in the presence of children have proven to be especially dysfunctional; parents were more negative and often discussed topics that were directly related to the child or to childrearing in general. High-intensity, unresolved, and child-related arguments are particularly distressing to children.
“It is not whether couples argue, but how they do it, that is most pertinent to the well-being and development of children.”
The good news is that studies have consistently found that it is not whether couples argue, but how they do it, that is most pertinent to the well-being and development of children. There is compelling evidence that conflict strategies can be constructive, from the child’s perspective. A study that looked at couples’ conflict behaviors and the damage they cause to children found a continuum from very destructive to highly constructive conflicts, with physical aggression at one extreme and parental affection and support at the other.
Notably, a longitudinal study revealed that constructive conflicts between parents enhanced their children’s prosocial behavior over time. This research showed that children tend to imitate their parents’ conflict behaviors, and they learn from watching their parents how to manage conflicts in their own relationships with peers.
“Children tend to imitate their parents’ conflict behaviors, and they learn from watching their parents how to manage conflicts in their own relationships with peers.”
However, conflict between couples is not an isolated occurrence and must be weighed in the broader family context. Previous research suggests that a couple’s ability to balance adverse interactions with positivity is a better predictor of relationship satisfaction and stability than the degree of positivity or negativity per se.
A study showed that couples whose ratio of positive to negative behaviors in their daily interactions was about 5:1 were the happiest couples with the lowest risk for divorce. Yet surprisingly little is known about the amount of positivity in the relationship between parents that is needed to buffer the impact of negative conflicts on children.
My colleagues and I conducted a study designed to address this question. Focusing on a sample of 375 Swiss parents, we looked at the ratios of positive to negative interactions and their effects on children’s adjustment. Roughly 10 percent of the parents had “high functioning” relationships, characterized by more than six times as many positive as negative interactions. A large majority (approximately 80 percent) had a ratio of about 2:1 and a minority (5 percent) had a ratio of less than 1.0, with more negative than positive interactions.
Our results provide strong evidence that the ratio of parental positivity to negativity matters for children – for better or worse. Children whose parents’ interactions were more negative than positive exhibited more externalizing behaviors (e.g., non-compliance, aggression, hyperactivity) compared with other children.
Moreover, we found that girls in families in which the ratio of positive to negative parental interactions was highest were better adjusted and showed more prosocial, cooperative, and helpful behavior than girls from other families.
Current findings suggest that the negative impact of parental conflict on child development should always be viewed in the context of the counterbalancing effect of positive interactions. When parents have a relationship that is positive overall, children experience more emotional security and are thus less likely to be upset by conflicts between their parents.
“What matters is not so much the presence of negativity in a marriage, but rather that it is balanced by at least twice as much positivity.”
But how much positivity do children need? Here, two points are of major importance. The first point concerns balance: Parental disagreements are unavoidable; what matters is not so much the presence of negativity in a marriage, but rather that it is balanced by at least twice as much positivity. Second, children are at less risk of adjustment issues, and may also exhibit more prosocial behavior when positive interactions by far outnumber negative interactions.
Hence, when it comes to parental interactions and conflict, the favorable rule of thumb should always be “the more positivity, the better”.
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