I just read an article published online yesterday and due to appear in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Family Issues. It reports a new study showing that college students, ages 18 to 21, almost all of them living away from home at a private religious college and a state university, pay a steep price for their parents’ arguments back home.
What price? Depression if they feel frightened by the arguing (frightened someone will get hurt or the family will break up, with emotional and economic consequences). And anxiety if they believe or have been told they cause the disagreements. The more intense the arguments and the more frequent, the more depression and anxiety. As if college and leaving home were not tough enough.
The researchers make it clear they can’t prove which causes which. They cannot ethically depress their students and check whether doing so makes them more frightened by their parents’ arguments. They cannot ramp up their students’ anxiety to see if it leads more of them to think the arguments back home are their fault. And they cannot check whether depressed and anxious college students living away from home somehow drive their parents to fight more. But their best guess — that the fights at home can cause depression if they are frightening without any sense of control and anxiety if the student feels responsible — sure sounds right, doesn’t it?
The authors, Christine R. Keeports and Laura D. Pittman of Northern Illiinois University, also include a review of the findings from earlier research their work builds upon. Here goes:
- Children exposed to higher levels of frequent, intense, and poorly resolved conflict are more maladjusted.
- Among children, more severe conflict (more intense, longer lasting, less often resolved) correlates with more negative outcomes.
- Negative outcomes of severe interparental conflict are similar for adolescents and young children.
- Young adults exposed to more interparental conflict during childhood or adolescence experience more depressive symptoms as young adults and are more likely to experience major depressive disorder, alcohol abuse, or dependency disorder.
- Young adults who were exposed as adolescents to more interparental conflict experience more symptoms of depression and anxiety as young adults.
- Within their own marriages, adult children who experienced more conflict in their families growing up typically demonstrate lower marital adjustment.
- What children blame for the arguments affects their level of distress, with the greatest distress, hopelessness, and despair felt by those who feel themselves as the reason for the arguments, less (but still a lot) by those who blame a stable, outside influence like parents do not love each other, and the least by those who blame a situational outside influence like a bad day at work.
- While threat and self-blame are greatest for children ages 10 to 14, they continue to be a problem for adolescents and young adults, with their perception of threat affecting their self-esteem, competence, and identity integration.
- And the problem may be increasing, as young adults from intact families now stay in much closer contact with their families than in previous generations, presumably because more are in college and marry later.
So, how can you protect your children? Learn how to argue a lot less:
- Learn to Find Third Alternatives instead of debating two you’ll never agree on or accepting compromises that make both of you equally unhappy.
- Choose to Expect Love and question some of your other expectations of what married people should do and what it means when they don’t.
- Before you jump into battle over alarming behavior that doesn’t immediately threaten your safety or financial security, Assume Love and consider some more likely explanations for the behavior.
You’ll be happier when you can get what you need without an argument, and you’ll probably feel a lot better with happy, hopeful, secure kids, even if they’ve already left the nest. And especially when they are raising your grandchildren.