a sad face of a boy, black and white photoWhen parents fight, children lose. A study from the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development finds that aggression between parents takes a toll on children’s emotional abilities. Children who are exposed to physical or verbal aggression are less able to identify and regulate their emotions. The study also finds that living with prolonged poverty and household chaos can impact children’s emotional competence.

The research team conducted a longitudinal study to determine how exposure to aggression between parents affects children over time. They evaluated 1,025 children and their families from North Carolina and central Pennsylvania. Both areas have high poverty rates.

Beginning when the children were two months old, the researchers conducted periodic home visits to evaluate children, parents, and household circumstances. The researchers used questionnaires and tasks to evaluate parents and children, respectively. They also evaluated levels of household chaos by measuring the noise levels, cleanliness, the number of people per room, and other factors. When the children reached 58 months (4 years and 10 months) of age, the researchers assessed the children’s ability to recognize and identify emotions.

Exposure to aggression and adversity at home can impact children’s neurobiological, cognitive, and behavioral responses. Prolonged exposure to aggression between parents significantly predicted children’s ability to accurately identify emotions at 58 months. Exposure to aggression was also linked to problems regulating feelings like sadness and fear.

Children who were exposed to higher levels of physical aggression performed worse on a simple emotion labeling task. However, children who were exposed to higher levels of verbal aggression had greater emotional knowledge.

Poverty and household chaos also affected children’s ability to identify emotions. Children who spent more years in poverty or who had higher levels of household chaos had lowered abilities in identifying emotions.

“This study shines a bright light on the importance of supporting parents as they navigate the ups and downs of partnership or marriage. Parents need help regulating their own feelings of anger, frustration, and worry when balancing the demands of work, family, and romantic partnership, especially when money is tight,” commented lead study author and professor of applied psychology at NYU C. Cybele Raver.

This research is published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

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