Parents: Study shows how you deal with conflict rubs off on your kids

Fights. Arguments. Spats.

Whatever you want to call them, we all have them.

And you might think, for the sake of your children, it’s best they occur behind closed doors, in hushed tones or perhaps, nowhere at all.

But that’s simply not the case.

A Ph. D. candidate at the University of Arizona, Olena Kopstynska, recently published a study in the Journal of Family Psychology saying it’s not the fact that parents argue that’s detrimental to children’s well being; it’s how parents argue.

In fact, she told AlltheMoms.com she thinks parents should argue in front of their kids, constructively, “because when children will experience conflict of their own, they will be better equipped to handle it in socially-acceptable ways.”

But it should be noted, she said, “it’s important for two parents, not just one, to engage in such conflict management.”

Credit: Getty Images

Kopstynska’s research focused on low-income families of three year olds who were part of the national Building Strong Families Project, with collected data from 2005 to 2008.

The government-funded project’s goal was to provided relationship-strengthening education and services to low-income, unmarried couples who were expecting or recently gave birth to a child.  Data was completed:

  • Either just prior to or just after giving birth
  • Again when the child was 15 months
  • Finally, when the child was 36 months

For the experiment, data was also collected among parents who met the same demographics but did not receive the education and services.

At each point of data collection, parents were asked whether the other parent in general argued in a constructive way or destructive way.

Constructive behavior was defined as discussion aimed at resolution, without screaming or bringing up past disagreements and acting in a hostile manner.

Destructive behavior was the opposite.

Credit: Getty Images

Parents were also asked questions like: When engaging in constructive behaviors, did you child appear happy, sad, anxious, etc.? 

In addition to the survey responses, researchers visited the families’ houses and videotaped the parents interacting with their child one-on-one.

Four types of parenting groups

From the research, Kopstynska said she identified four types of parenting styles:

  1. Parents who both argued constructively
  2. Parents who both argued destructively
  3. Mom argued constructively, dad argued destructively
  4. Dad argued constructively, mom argued destructively

The primary lesson drawn from the data, was that children of parents who argued constructively were reportedly happier and felt more secure in their home life. 

The children of parents where even just one parent argued destructively, however, reportedly felt less safe and less happy, according to survey results.

Credit: Getty Images

“In other words,” Kopstynska told AlltheMoms.com, “the quality of parents’ relationship and how they solve conflict tells the child a lot about security and safety of the family.”

Defying stereotypes: Low-income families are not poor problem solvers

The expectant, unwed parents in the sample size of about 3,700 couples, were considered to be at high risk for conflict due the stress of limited financial support and stability.

Contrary to popular belief, however, Kopstynska said not all low-income families have dysfunctional family issues.

Her research found that between the two groups that did and did not receive conflict-resolution training, the reactions were essentially the same and the majority argued in constructive ways.

While this might lead some to conclude the training was pointless, Kopstynska said there is a chance the trained couples engaged in a “period of apprehension,” where they are wary of the lessons learned and therefore essentially ignore them.

It would be more accurate to determine the success of the training with more waves of research, she said.

So how do you start arguing ‘constructively’?

Accept that conflict happens, and work to strengthen your self awareness.

“With self-awareness, parents may start lowering their voices and perhaps begin to reevaluate whether it’s even important to bring up past issues that were never solved in the first place,” Kopstynska said.

And if you snap?

Don’t stress! Kopstynska said based on other studies she’s read, “the impact of one-time destructive conflict is lessened if couples typically engage in constructive conflict management.”

Credit: Giphy

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