Children of divorced parents who witness arguments are more likely than their peers to suffer from anxiety and other mental health problems, according to new research.
Researchers at Arizona State University interviewed 559 children aged 9-18, asking whether they had been involved in conflict between their parents – for example witnessing rows, hearing negative comments made by one parent about the other, or being asked to pass on negative messages. The youngsters were asked to describe how they felt about these experiences.
Those children who had seen arguments were more anxious, specifically about the possibility of being abandoned by one or even both parents. These fears became more intense the more arguments they witnessed, and their anxieties persisted for months after the initial interview with researchers. Children who had a good relationship with their father were especially vulnerable to this fear of abandonment.
Lead researcher Karey O’Hara explained:
“’When parents who are married or cohabitating engage in conflict, the child might worry about their parents separating. But children whose parents are divorced or separated have already seen the dissolution of their family. The idea that they might be abandoned might be unlikely, but it is not illogical from their perspective.”
The children’s fear of abandonment was, she continued:
“…associated with future mental health problems.”
The children were monitored by the researchers after the interview stage and the majority of those who had experienced mental health problems were still having difficulties ten months later.
Professor O’Hara added:
“A strong father-child relationship came at a cost when interparental conflict was high. Having a high-quality parenting relationship is protective, but it is possible that quality parenting alone is not enough in the context of high levels of inter-parental conflict between divorced parents.”
The study was published in the specialist journal Child Development.