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Parents' conflict key in kids' development

Author: Arts and Letters

SOUTH BEND — E. Mark Cummings calls emotional security a bridge between children and the world. And how parents handle conflict determines how children navigate that bridge.

Cummings, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame, said that conclusion comes from two studies that he and his colleagues conducted at the University of Notre Dame Center for Children and Families and the University of Rochester in New York.

In one study, researchers looked at the effect that parental conflict had on 9- to 18-year-old children over a three-year period. The second study looked at the connection between parental conflict and emotional problems in kindergarten-age children. That was also a three-year study.

Both showed that parents who resorted to personal insults, who became defensive, or who refused to address problems set in motion events that resulted in a variety of dysfunctions including emotional insecurity, depression and behavioral problems, Cummings said.Conversely, parents increased children’s security if they worked through conflict while continuing to express affection, promote problem-solving and enhance positive feelings.

While the findings might not be surprising, Cummings said parents’ actions today often don’t demonstrate that they understand how deeply children are affected by the issues.

“(And) second, people don’t realize how early kids are affected,” Cummings said. “The effects can be seen in children as young as a year old.”

Finally, parents don’t appear to know how to constructively resolve their differences.

“You’re going to have arguments — whether it’s over who washes the dishes or takes out the garbage. Conflict is inevitable,” Cummings said. “It’s important how you fight.” Cummings said researchers want to share their common-sense recommendations with churches, community centers and social service agencies. Those groups will be asked to select parents who might be helped by the center’s educational workshops.

The parents will attend a series of four sessions at the center’s office on North Ironwood Drive.

The workshops will include PowerPoint presentations, role-playing and other ways to reinforce positive ways to resolve parental conflict, Cummings said.

The center will track participants to see if the seminars improve their conflict resolution skills. If so, the center will make the seminars available on a wider basis, Cummings said.

Originally published by Howard Dukes (in the South Bend Tribune) at on March 28, 2006.