June 13th, 2024

Passionate Parenting

At war with your spouse? This simple, scientifically proven advice limits the damage your kids will suffer

Jennifer Graham

By Jennifer Graham Deseret News

Published June 27,2018

At war with your spouse? This simple, scientifically proven advice  limits the damage your kids will suffer
They may not be able to stop their parents from fighting, but siblings with a good relationship may protect each other from negative fallout from a high-conflict marriage, a study released Tuesday said.

The study, published in the journal Child Development, is the latest to suggest that strong sibling relationships contribute to better outcomes in life. The authors found that a strong bond between at least two siblings appears to neutralize the insecurity and distress some children suffer when their parents’ marriage is acrimonious.

Just having a sibling doesn't provide the protection, but having a good relationship with one does, said Patrick T. Davies, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester and the lead author of the study.

Children as young as 6 months old can be affected by recurring hostility between parents. Previous research has shown that some of these children can experience anxiety, depression and fearfulness, and some may have physical and academic problems.

Davies, who has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, said it's normal for parents to fight and disagree; the risk to well-being occurs when children are consistently exposed to escalating anger and unresolved conflict.

"Even then, most of these kids, when they're exposed to these destructive forms of conflict, are developing along typical trajectories. It's a risk factor, but a lot of them turn out OK," Davies said. The new research helps shed light on what differentiates well-adjusted children from those who are negatively affected by an acrimonious marriage.

While the study is small and more research is needed, the authors concluded that their findings suggest that parents shouldn't just work on their marriage, but also find ways to strengthen the relationships between their children.

Quality, not quantity

Davies and other researchers from the University of Rochester, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Notre Dame studied the interactions of 236 families with adolescent children over three years in Rochester, New York, and South Bend, Indiana.

The strength of the parents' relationship was assessed in videotaped sessions, during which researchers looked for hostile or aggressive behavior and words. In later sessions, the researchers examined the children's feelings about their parents' behavior by asking true-false questions about how they feel when their parents argue (i.e., "When my parents argue, I feel scared").

When a family had more than one child, the researchers accessed the strength of the siblings' relationship by interviewing the parents.

The children with the highest levels of emotional insecurity often had "average" or "below average" relationships with a sibling. Conversely, emotional insecurity and psychological problems were "not significant" for teens who were close to their siblings, the report said.

Jennifer Jenkins, who holds the Atkinson Chair of Child Development and Education at the University of Toronto and has studied marital conflict and siblings, was not involved with this study but said it appears the effects shown in the research are causal, not simply correlational. That means the presence of a supportive sibling wasn't a coincidence, but played a role in the other sibling's emotional health.

But this doesn't mean that the more siblings they have, the better off children are when their parents fight. "It's about relationship quality, not number," Jenkins said.

How siblings can be closer

Researchers believe that children are negatively affected by a volatile marriage not only because they fear their parents might divorce, but also because they may try to become involved in hopes they can help resolve the conflict. But destructive conflict between parents also hurts children because it can change the spouses' parenting styles.

"If the parents are fighting and it escalates, it creates a negative environment. Parents become more angry, more aggressive, they insult each other and carry that over into other family relationships," Davies said.

Furthermore, "Parental distress and preoccupation with relationship problems that commonly occur in the wake of destructive conflicts may undermine parental abilities to sensitively respond to children's needs and provide consistent discipline," Davies said.

Since it can be difficult to get warring spouses into therapy, Davies said the findings suggest another effective way to protect children from a volatile marriage: Help siblings grow closer to each other.

"We may not always be able to improve the marital relationship; it may be much more feasible and cost effective to work on the sibling relationship," he said.

The study cites one pilot program in particular, an after-school program called "Siblings are Special," which teaches communications strategies and seeks to develop a sense of camaraderie between siblings.

Susan McHale, the Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies and professor of demography at Penn State University who helped develop the program, said two studies on the program's use in Pennsylvania and Arizona showed improved relationships between siblings, and also the children's mothers showed fewer symptoms of depression over time.

"If you can improve one piece of the system, it has an effect on the other pieces of the system. It shows how important in families the sibling relationship really is," McHale said.

Among other activities, children in the program were encouraged to come up with a "team" motto and mascot for themselves and their siblings, to give the pair a sense of camaraderie and purpose. They also drew Venn diagrams that showed areas in which they were like their siblings and ways that they were different. "Both (areas) deserve celebration," McHale said. "This is an important message for parents, too."

Another way parents can help improve the relationships between their children is to be careful not to treat the children differently, both Jenkins and McHale said.

"If kids feel they are treated more equally, sibling relationship quality is better," said Jenkins, who co-authored a study on differential parenting in 2012.

McHale also said that differential treatment is a major issue, and children whose parents treat them differently are likely to be poorly adjusted and to fight more.

But when parents have good reasons for treating two children differently — for example, if one child gets to stay up later because he is older, or another doesn't have to do a chore because she is too young --- explaining the reason can ameliorate the negative impact.

"If they think it's fair, that makes it OK," McHale said.

In America today, more children grow up in a home with a sibling than with a father, and in middle childhood and adolescence, children usually spend more out-of-school time with their siblings than anyone else, McHale said. Since much of that time is unsupervised, it's a good idea for any parent -- regardless of the quality of their marriage -- to nurture these relationships. The new study also reminds parents with good marriages that any disagreement can be a teaching moment if handled well.

"One thing parents sometimes take from these studies is that conflict is bad. Conflict can be good, or it can be bad; it matters how you express yourself during the conflict," Davies said.

"It's OK to fight and disagree in front of your kids. You just want to be civil about it and work toward a resolution," he said. "You don't always have to find a solution, but working toward a solution is going to provide them with good examples of how you deal with disagreement in your everyday life."