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Children Struggle to Control Emotions With Prolonged Exposure to Parental Conflict

Exposure to various forms of adversity, including conflict between parents, can make it more difficult for young children to recognize and control emotions, according to new research from the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

In a study of 1,025 children living in eastern North Carolina and central Pennsylvania, researchers evaluated the youths’ exposure to different types of adversity, including verbal or physical aggression between parents, household chaos and poverty. Both areas from which the study participants were drawn are regions where a relatively high percentage of the population lives below the poverty line.

Adverse influences in the lives of these children were evaluated from the time they were 2 months old until they were 58 months old (4 years and 10 months). The research team gathered data through home visits during which they measured levels of household chaos, assigned various tasks to the children and parents and had the parents complete questionnaires.

Physical Aggression Between Parents Particularly Harmful

Nearly all these types of adversity—aggression between parents, high levels of household chaos, and poverty—had a negative impact on the ability of these children to correctly identify emotions. Physical aggression between parents had a particularly strong ability to predict those children who would struggle to recognize and identify emotions.

Household chaos, including factors such as changes in caregivers, frequent moves, crowded households, noise, disorganization and low levels of cleanliness, also made it more difficult for young children to accurately identify a variety of emotions when they were given a simple labeling task.

Poverty also negatively influenced emotional awareness, and the influence increased the longer that impoverished conditions were sustained. The study revealed that the longer children spent in conditions of poverty, the more their ability to recognize emotions decreased.

Verbal Aggression Can Heighten Emotional Sensitivity

Somewhat surprisingly, the researchers found that verbal aggression between parents without physical aggression actually resulted in better performances from children when it came to identifying emotions. It was the only type of adversity explored in this study that corresponded with an improved ability to recognize emotions compared to children who grew up in comparatively stable and conflict-free environments.

However, aggression between parents in any form was linked to other difficulties among the children in the study. Children exposed to verbal or physical aggression struggled when it came to regulating emotions such as sadness, fear and withdrawal. These children were found to be at greater risk for depression and anxiety in later years.

Looking at the Effects of Prolonged Exposure to Adversity

Previous studies have examined children’s emotional and behavioral development after exposure to conflict at a single point in time, but the NYU Steinhardt researchers wanted to explore the effects of prolonged exposure to adversity.

This study and earlier studies demonstrate that children do not need to be the direct recipients of verbally or physically aggressive behavior to be negatively affected by it. Aggression between parents can also have a negative impact on children’s emotional understanding and regulation.

The fact that other adverse conditions also impact emotional development is particularly worrisome since economic struggles and other kinds of household instability are exactly the types of situations that frequently put marriages and partnerships under stress and may lead to conflict and aggression. This study suggests that these are also situations during which children are already likely to struggle with emotional development even without the additional component of parental conflict.

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