We, as a society, have a strange relationship with children that is intensely riddled with paradoxes, ironies, and contradictions. Thanks to the intense eye of media coverage, we feel our kids are in the most dangerous society history has ever seen– although social scientists have readily dismissed this absurd idea. Thinking of letting your young child play outside alone? Absolutely not! Some may interpret as abuse. And even if you are outside with your children supervising their exploration and interaction with the world around them, they better avoid climbing to the top of the slide, lest they fall to their untimely deaths– even if such an occurrence was simply an isolated incident. But scientific study seems to be making a case that more people are listening to, and parents are becoming more aware of the detrimental effects such overprotective behavior can have on their children.
But if we take special care to turn that coin over, and thoroughly examine the reverse, we hit a bit of a problem. While the research is encouraging parental and authority figures to take a step back from their childrens’ lives, it is certainly not telling them to treat young people as adults. But too many of us are doing it in a way we may not realize. And herein lies the great irony: the same parents who accompany their children everywhere and keep watch like an Orwellian Big Brother, in the name of “oh, but they’re just children!” could very well be harming them in another way, completely oblivious to the mental toll which it could potentially have, because “oh, but they’re just children!”
I’m talking about aggressive behavior between parents.
An article in Sciencedaily recently recapped the findings from a study done by New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. The longitudinal study, first published in Pathology and Developmental Psychology, tracked the way that exposure to both physical and verbal aggression at home impacted the ability of a child to correctly identify and control his or her own emotions. Now, there have been similar studies conducted in the past, but those focused on immediate effects and the short term. This is the first such study that follows the subjects throughout childhood. In addition to these kinds of conflict, the study also demonstrated that any type of chaos or time in poverty could also have detrimental effects on a child’s developmental growth. It’s easy to see how fighting is stressful for both parental parties involved. However, when it is done in front of kids, we can only help but to wonder if the parents don’t worry about the effect their ill-communication is having on their children. Do the parents instead write it off simply by assuming the child knows better than to believe the arguments have anything to do with them? Evidently not, the study shows, as kids find these conflicts as emotionally taxing as the conflicting parties.
Now let’s take a closer look at the study itself. In general, the study sought to measure how exposure to a conflict heavy environment affected the ways in which children could identify and process negative emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness. The longitudinal range ran from ages of 2 years to 58 months. The researchers gathered sorta data by having parents complete questionnaires, disclosing such pertinent information as number of times the household moved, noise levels, cleanliness, the number of times the primary caregiver changed, and things of the like. This was calculated to determine the level of chaos present in a house, and plotted against the levels of stability. At the end of the study, when the children were at the ripe, wise age of 58 months, they were asked to do an exercise that involved identifying emotions. True to expectations, the children exposed to physical aggression between their parents did not perform well on the task. More unexpected though, was the finding that children whose parents engaged in more verbal conflicts, were much more attuned to their own emotions, and able to perform the task better.
More troubling though, was the discovery that the longer a child was exposed to these kinds of conflicts, the more likely they would be unable to adequately regulate their own negative emotions, such as sadness and fear. Unsurprisingly, this places them at higher risk for mental disorders such as depression and anxiety later on in life.
We should keep in mind that children’s minds are very plastic, very malleable. They’re always soaking in information that pertains to the world around them. To believe that they simply can’t process what’s going on, or will forget it in time, is not only dismissive of their human capacities in the moments, but also directly counter to the latest research in child development. Said research asserts that children are constantly learning, and that at birth our mind is far from a Rousseauian tabula rasa. In fact, children already have developed some expectations of the world around them in the womb. And if that can be discerned before birth, just imagine what the brain processes afterwards.
For more information on the NYU study Check out the ScienceDaily article here.
To learn more about psychological development in the womb, please watch Annie Murphy Paul’s Ted Talk, below.