New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) reveals why some children are badly affected by negative family conflicts while other children survive without significant problems.
Researchers found that the way in which children understood the conflicts between their parents had different effects on their emotional and behavioural problems. Where children blamed themselves for the conflicts between their parents, they were more likely to have behavioural problems, such as anti-social behaviour.
But if their parents' fighting or arguing led to a child feeling threatened, or fearful that the family would split up, the child was more likely to experience emotional problems, such as depression.
The impact of everyday conflict between parents on their children's behaviour and mental health is driven by how the children understand the problems in the relationship as well as the nature of the conflict itself, the researchers found. These disagreements include; hostile relationships between parents, poor parenting practices, negative parent-child relationships and maternal depression.
Professor Gordon Harold of the University of Leicester said the research highlighted the importance of ensuring that intervention programmes focused on helping parents to resolve these day-to-day conflicts with their partner, while also reiterating the importance of promoting positive parenting strategies.
As the nature of the parents' relationship is so important, intervention programmes that focus solely on parenting skills and practices may miss out ways of helping children deal with emotional and behavioural problems especially when there are high levels of inter-parental conflict.
Professor Harold said: "Children exposed to everyday conflicts between their parents - conflicts that are non-violent, but frequent, intense and poorly resolved - are at elevated risk for mental health problems, even when we consider poor parenting practices or genetic susceptibility factors passed on from parents to children, in explaining the effects of hostile relationships on children."
"Importantly, children may not actually be responsible for their parents’ relationship problems. Rather, they simply need to feel or perceive that they are responsible in order to experience negative psychological outcomes," said Professor Harold.
Professor Anita Thapar, of the Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences at Cardiff University said "The research showed the pattern of family and genetic contributions varied for different types of child mental health problem as well as for boys and girls. This research looked at the relationship between genetic liability to child mental health problems and negative family experiences in the development of these problems and sought to take account of specific parental influences on children".
The research also found that girls may be a higher risk for depression when their parent’s relationship is hostile or there is a negative mother-child relationship. Depressive symptoms displayed by daughters resulted in increases in parent-to-child hostility from both mothers and fathers.
"By highlighting parents’ conflict management strategies as well as parenting practices, intervention programmes can be developed that target risk mechanisms specific to the types of problems experienced by children living in households with high levels of parental conflict, such as parental separation or divorce," said Professor Harold.
For further information contact:
Professor Gordon Harold
Telephone: 0116 229 7198
ESRC Press Office:
Telephone: 01793 413122
Telephone: 01793 413119
Notes for editors
This release is based on the findings from 'Family and genetic influences on children's psychological development' funded by the ESRC and carried out by Gordon Harold, now at the University of Leicester and Anita Thapar at Cardiff University. This was a collaboration between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
The project involved analysis of molecular genetic and longitudinal questionnaire data from an existing twin sample and other data sets. These were used to examine the effects of negative family experiences and genetic contributions to children’s symptoms of depression, antisocial behaviour and ADHD.
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as good.