Marital conflict and stress in children

Marital conflict can serve as a significant source of stress for young people, new research has found. Published in the journal Child Development, the study revealed witnessing arguments of this type might also prove harmful to a child's stress response system.

Researchers from Auburn University and the Catholic University of America looked at 251 children from a variety of backgrounds and discovered this impact can also lead to a youngster's mental and intellectual development being hindered.

It was shown that children who saw more instances of marital conflict when aged eight had less adaptive respiratory sinus arrhythmia - an activity index in the body's stress response system - at age nine.

Benjamin Hinnant, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Catholic University of America, said the findings provide evidence that "stress affects the development of the body's stress response systems that help regulate attention, and that how these systems work is tied to the development of cognitive ability".

Dr Lynne Jordan, a Chartered Psychologist, comments:

'It is probably not surprising to those of us in clinical practice to find that children and teenagers can be adversely affected in their development by witnessing domestic discord and abuse. The child or teenager stays alert as part of their stress response mechanism to what is seen as threatening and scary or unsettling, and this alertness can become a semi permanent feature of the person s state of mind.

"This, in turn, can affect concentration and the ability to meaningfully engage in adult relationships. This is due to trust and a sense of security being undermined. When the people we look to for security and stability even in our adolescent years, are in conflict it destabilises us or at least causes us to feel very unsettled.

"The extent to which this effects us negatively will depend on a range of factors including other stabilising relationships, how long and how often the conflict has continued and also the age at which the events occur."