Professor Gordon Harold and his colleagues have conducted a research study that helps to cast light upon why some children appear to be more resilient to the adverse psychological and behavioural effects of living in a household in which there exists family conflict than others. The findings of the research suggested that key to such resilience is related to how the child interprets the situation and the meaning that s/he attaches to it, especially in relation to the parents’ behaviours and what actually underlies the conflict (main foundations of conflicts within the families studied included adversarial relationships between parents, strained and problematic relationships between the parent/s and the child and maternal depression).
If the child interprets the situation as his / her fault (this is, sadly, a typical, unwarranted response) s/he is at higher risk of developing behavioural problems (e.g. anti-social tendencies).
Notwithstanding the above, however, overall and on average girls are more likely to respond to conflict within the home by displaying emotional problems (internalisation). At the same time, boys are more likely to respond by displaying behavioural difficulties (externalisation), according to Professor Harold.
On the other hand, according to the research, if the child interprets the conflict as dangerous and as a threat to his/her wellbeing or is fearful it will lead to the breakdown and disintegration of the family, s/he is at increased risk of developing psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. Depression was also more likely to manifest itself in girls, the research suggested, if the parents’ relationship was volatile or if interpersonal relations between the daughter and mother were strained and stressful.
Professor Harold has also stated that for family conflict which is poorly resolved to affect the child’s mental health adversely, it does not necessarily have to be ‘high intensity’ conflict but may involve parents being very withdrawn from one another or using what has been termed ‘the silent treatment’ as a means of inflicting psychological punishment. Furthermore, he has drawn attention to research that suggests that living in households in which there exists longterm, the ongoing conflict between the parents can adversely affect children physiologically (for example, by increasing their risk of suffering from tachycardia, hypervigilance and/or impairment of normal brain development).
According to the researchers, interventions most likely to help families living in conflict are those that concentrate upon solutions that enable parents to resolve or reduce their day-to-day conflicts with one another and that also focus on encouraging and improving techniques of positive and nurturing parenting. Professor Harold has stressed that importance of effective interventions due to the risk that bad relationships between parents may get passed down the generations in a self-perpetuating cycle (concerning this, you may be interested in reading my previously published article on the topic of so-called transgenerational trauma).
Professor Harold stresses that occasional arguments between parents are reasonable and, if the parents resolve these successfully, this can set a positive example to the child that may help him/her resolve his/her disputes in future relationships. He also points out that supportive, positive relationships that the child has beyond that with his/her parents, such as with grandparents, teachers and siblings, can have a substantial impact on his/her psychological resilience, though warns that the quality of the child’s relationship with his/her parents can affect these negatively as well as positively.
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that, according to Professor Harold, often the most damaging aspect of parents’ divorce upon the child may be the chronic, unresolved conflict (arguments, confrontations etc.) which may occur before, during and after the separation. Yes, as a young child, I can remember sitting at the top of the stairs listening to my parents screaming at each other downstairs, shaking with fear (and then being shouted at by my mother – ‘that sodding kid’s eavesdropping again!’ – if I was discovered). An all too common experience, I imagine.
GORDON HAROLD, DANIEL ACQUAH, RUTH SELLERS & HAROON CHOWDRY. EDITED BY LEON FEINSTEIN. WHAT WORKS TO ENHANCE INTER-PARENTAL RELATIONSHIPS AND IMPROVE OUTCOMES FOR CHILDREN. University of Sussex, Department of Works and Pensions. DWP ad hoc research report no. 32. First published 2016. ISBN 978-1-78425-719-4
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).