Researchers in the U.S. say that couples who fight in front of their children or even those who ignore each other, encourage negative thoughts and distress about marriage and family life which is sometimes evident up to a year later.
Marital conflict was examined as an indicator of the quality and quantity of sleep and was found to be a factor in otherwise healthy 8- to 9-year-olds, while emotional security became more of an issue in adolescents.
The researchers from the University of Rochester in New York and the University of Notre Dame say that witnessing high levels of destructive conflict between parents is linked with distress and negative thoughts in children in response to that conflict.
Lead researcher Patrick T. Davies, Ph.D., professor of psychology says that previous research has shown that children do not become accustomed to the hostility and in fact become more sensitive to it.
He was curious to discover whether different forms of destructive conflict between parents played different roles in children's reactions and whether differences between children's negative reactions to the conflict were consistent over time.
They were also interested in the whether the children's responses to the conflict changed as they got older.
Parents and children reported on marital conflict, and the quantity and quality of children's sleep were examined through an actigraph worn for 7 consecutive nights, while child sleepiness was derived from child and mother reports.
Increased marital conflict was associated with disruptions in the quantity and quality of children's sleep as well as subjective sleepiness, even after controlling for child age, ethnic group membership, socioeconomic status, sex, and body mass index.
The results support the sensitization hypothesis in that exposure to marital conflict may influence an important facet of children's biological regulation, namely sleep.
The researchers studied 223 six-year-old children and their parents over a one year period using interviews and observations at two time points one year apart to measure children's distress reactions and negative thoughts.
Watching how parents worked out their disagreements, two definite types of destructive conflicts: hostility and disengagement or indifference were identified by the researchers.
Dr. Davies says conflict between parents may have quite distinct meanings and implications for the child and family system even after considering the effects of parenting difficulties, and in the long run, the stress of witnessing these forms of conflict may have long-term implications for children's functioning by directly altering their patterns of responding to conflict between their parents.
The study is published in the January/February 2006 issue of the journal Child Development.