Children of parents who argue frequently tend to be more watchful of other people’s emotional states and also appear to process emotions differently than children from low-conflict homes, according to a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
The findings also suggest that children from high-conflict homes may face more social challenges later in life.
For the study, researchers measured the brain activity of children as they looked at a variety of photos of couples in angry poses, happy poses and neutral poses. Based on questionnaires filled out by their mothers, the children were grouped in either a high-conflict or a low-conflict group.
When the young participants were asked to identify the angry couples in the set of photos, the brains of the children in the high conflict group registered a much higher amplitude on an EEG test of an electrical activity called P-3 in response to the angry photos, compared with children in the low conflict group. P-3 is associated with the brain’s ability to discriminate among stimuli and to focus on and give meaning to something.
The study’s lead author, Alice Schermerhorn, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont, noted that, for the children from high conflict homes, looking for the photos of angry couples could be similar to situations at home where parents have had an argument that hasn’t been resolved.
“They’re being watchful in the home in the same way that they’re watching for angry faces in the research setting,” she said.
The P-3 signal in children from high conflict homes was also much higher when they were asked to identify angry couples but actually were looking at the happy faces, compared with children from low-conflict homes.
The findings suggest that children from high-conflict homes, by training their brains to be vigilant, process signs of interpersonal emotion, whether anger or happiness, differently than children from low-conflict homes, Schermerhorn said.
For some, that extra vigilance may result in having difficulty in social relationships later in life, Schermerhorn hypothesized, although more research is needed to test that theory.
“I would predict some association with their functioning in other kinds of situations,” she said.
Schermerhorn and her colleagues are conducting more research to figure out if a relationship exists between higher levels of P-3 and the behaviors of their research subjects.
Source: University of Vermont