Multiple studies have shown that conflict-filled marriages can have negative effects on kids’ behavior, mental health, and physical well-being. New research published in the journal Health Psychology looks at the consequences of positive marital interactions on kids, and finds that witnessing affection between parents has health benefits of its own.
A team of researchers from Wayne State University surveyed 80 kids with asthma aged 10 to 17 who lived with a parent who was married or in a long-term relationship. They asked the children to keep a diary for four days documenting their asthma symptoms, their moods, and what they observed between their parents, with notes like like “My mom and dad argued today” and “My mom and dad kissed or hugged today.”
Unlike other studies that have found kids’ health to suffer around parental conflict, subjects here didn’t feel sicker when their parents fought. But kids who saw signs of affection between their parents reported a reduction in asthma symptoms and better lung function.
“Parents should be aware that children respond emotionally not only to the direct interactions they have with their parents, but also to . . . interactions their parents have between each other,” said co-author Samuele Zilioli, a post-doctoral fellow at Wayne State University. “In turn, these children’s emotional responses can affect their health.”
Eighty kids isn’t a huge sample size. The data are also pulled from just four days of self-reported survey, and kids aren’t perfectly reliable reporters. But it’s an intriguing addition to a body of research that has focused mostly on the harmful effects of parental conflict.
Seeing an argument isn’t necessarily what harms kids, psychologists say. It’s not knowing if parents have made up afterward. Those outward signs of affection let kids know that the relationship—and consequently, their own environment—is secure.
It’s worth remembering that adult relationships can look very different from a child’s perspective. To a parent, a “happy marriage” might mean fairly shared responsibilities, meaningful conversation, and private intimacy. To kids, it means outward displays like hugs, kisses, and verbal endearments.
By the same token, what adults see as a heated but productive argument can be a scary and stressful fight to kids, especially if they never see the conflict resolved.
“If kids see parents work things out, that increases emotional security,” said E. Mark Cummings, a psychology professor at Notre Dame University who has researched the effects of parents’ conflict on children. “Resolution of conflict is a wonder drug. If [kids] see resolved conflict, even if it’s been very negative, they feel okay about it. If they don’t see resolution, they don’t feel okay about it.”