Couples can communicate anger in all kinds of nonverbal ways: giving each other dirty looks or the silent treatment, for example. And while it’s widely understood that heated arguments and shouting matches in front of the kids are a bad idea, research suggests that, for kids, nonverbal conflict can be just as upsetting as verbal conflict.
“Children are like emotional geiger counters,” said E. Mark Cummings, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame who has conducted extensive studies on the effects of marital discord on kids for more than 20 years. Children, he explained, are incredibly attuned to parents’ emotional communication with each other; they’re keenly aware that, for their parents, nonverbal expression is key to communicating feelings.
For many couples, holding onto a grudge—smoldering but not letting a disagreement erupt into a fighting match—may seem like the best way to deal with a conflict. But research shows this kind of discord can significantly interfere with a child’s behavior and sense of emotional security. When exposed to prolonged unresolved conflict, kids are more likely to get into fights with their peers at school and show signs of distress, anger, and hostility. They may also have trouble sleeping at night, which can undermine their academic performance. In fact, according to various studies that measured children’s emotional responses to interparental hostility, disengagement and uncooperative discord between couples has shown to increase a child’s risk of psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, and aggression.