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Study: Parents' Fighting Can Hinder Cognitive Development

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Couples fight. It happens.

But parents who argue a lot in front of their kids may be doing them a bigger disservice than previously realized. 

Fighting in front of your kids can trigger stress which, over an extended period of time, may impede children's mental and intellectual development, according to provocative new research.

"The early childhood brain is disproportionately receptive to what's good and bad in the environment," says Rahil Briggs, director of the Healthy Steps program at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. "This is why a young child can learn a new language in a year. It's also why stress in their environment is disproportionately impactful."

The study, published in the journal Child Development, surveyed 251 children from a variety of backgrounds who lived in two-parent homes, montoring their exposure to marital conflict at the age of 8.

Researchers from Auburn University and the Catholic University of America then evaluated how children’s stress response system functioned. They measured kids' respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), a naturally occurring variation in heart rate that occurs during a breathing cycle. A measure of the parasympathetic branch of the body’s stress response system, the RSA has been associated with the ability to regulate attention and emotion. 

Plus: Fight the Right Way

Researchers also measured children’s ability to rapidly solve problems and quickly see patterns in new information at ages 8, 9, and 10. Sure enough, children who witnessed more marital conflict at age 8 showed less adaptive RSA activity at 9.

“The findings provide further evidence that stress affects the development of the body’s stress response systems that help regulate attention, and that how these systems work is tied to the development of cognitive ability,” explained J. Benjamin Hinnant, one of the researchers.

The new findings come on the heels of another study published in the journal Psychological Science this week that found that infants respond to angry tone of voice, even when they're asleep. 

What can parents take from this research? Fight smarter, for starters, Briggs says.

"I'd like to suggest to parents that children's brains are like recording devices.They're always on," says Briggs, an expert in the early social and emotional development of infants and toddlers, parent-child relationships. "We don't get to choose if they're on or off. What we do get to choose is what they record."

  • Because infants register stress even while sleeping, waiting till after bedtime for those difficult conversations is not quite good enough. It's best to have conversations most likely to trigger an argument when the children are out of the house – on a sleepover, say, or with their grandparents. 
  • When you do fight in front of your kids, make sure the child sees the fight's resolution. Explain to your kids that Mommy and Daddy still love each other, and you're sorry that you raised your voices at each other. 

Not all stress is bad, though. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child classifies three types of stress: positive, tolerable and toxic. 

Plus: 6 Ways to Stop Sibling Fighting

Positive stress is short-lived and fairly minor and a potential growing experience, like the first day of kindergarden. Tolerable stress is a little more intense, says Briggs: the death of a grandparent or a broken bone. Toxic stress, on other hand, is severely debilitating to the child's development and can result from prolonged exposure to domestic violence, or a mentally ill or substance addicted parent. 

"We do know that younger children seem to be more susceptible to stress because the neural pathways being laid down that deal with stress are so plastic at that moment," Briggs tells Parenting. "We've just got to be really smart about what young children are surrounded by."

How do you handle fighting around the kids? Leave a comment.

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