Children who worry about how their parents get along with each other are more likely than other children to have psychological problems. Now a new study says that children who worry a lot about conflicts between their parents are more likely to have problems in school because they have more difficulty paying attention to the tasks before them.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester, Syracuse University, and the University of Notre Dame, is one of the first to chart how children's concerns about their parents' relationship may increase their vulnerability to later adjustment problems. It appears in the September/October 2008 issue of the journal Child Development.
The study looked at a group of 216 predominantly White 6-year-olds, their parents, and their teachers annually over a three-year period. Children were evaluated to determine their negative thoughts and worries about how their parents got along, based on how they completed unfinished stories about conflicts between parents. Teachers reported on children's ability to get along with their classmates and take part in class activities, and on their behavior as a measure of how they had adjusted to school. Specifically, they were asked whether the children were cooperative with peers, followed teachers' directions, used classroom materials responsibly, and usually acted appropriately. Children's attention problems were assessed through reports by parents and computerized measures of how they were able to focus and sustain attention.
Children who had concerns about how their parents got along had more attention problems a year after the concern was first identified, according to the study. These attention problems, in turn, were associated with reports by teachers that the children had problems adjusting to school in the same year and one year later. Attention difficulties accounted for an average of 34% of the relationship between children's worries about their parents and school problems.
In many cases, children's negative thoughts were based on witnessing actual relationship problems between parents, and the study suggests that the children may have used the negative thoughts to help them cope with stress in high-conflict homes.
"Understanding how children respond to discord between parents is a pressing priority for public health," according to Patrick T. Davies, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and the lead author of the study. "Implementing programs to help strengthen children's ability to pay attention may be one way to promote children's mental health without jeopardizing what may be adaptive or realistic ways of dealing with discord between their parents."