Should you argue in front of the kids?


'Bickering parents impair kids' development," said a headline last week, striking fear into middle England. For who hasn't yelled at their partner in front of the children?

The Daily Mail was reporting on a study of 58 people aged between 17 and 20 whose parents (mostly mothers, which was a limitation of the study) were asked to recall family life from the birth of the young person until the age of 11. The parents were asked by trained researchers for details on when family members didn't get on – if voices were raised, if people threw things, or there was physical violence.

They then did brain scans on the teenagers to see if being exposed to discord had affected brain development. The study showed a link between family discord and a reduction in the volume of grey matter in the brain, especially in the cerebellum.

Other studies have already linked smaller cerebellums with mental health problems such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. A reduction in grey matter in the cerebellum has also been found in people with autism and ADHD.

So does this mean that arguing in front of the kids can impair the development of their brains? If so, should you stop, or do it quietly, or is it OK as long as you don't throw things?

The solution

The first author of the paper, Nicholas D Walsh from the University of Cambridge, is keen to stress that we're talking about more than bickering over emptying the dishwasher. "The discord had to have an objective impact on the family," he explains, "such as a parent suffering anxiety, children missing school or being left to their own devices, or the parents separating."

The level of discord needed to produce such an impact was likely to be chronic and frequent and could have included such things as verbal abuse, throwing things, and a lack of warmth and communication.

Such discord could be more common than we like to think. This small group of children is part of a larger (nearly 2,000) Cambridge-wide study of teenagers and adolescents. "The scale of family discord is unknown," says Walsh. "We need larger studies to find out how common it is."

The link between discord and brain development is not understood and avoiding conflict altogether in families is not good either. Negotiating conflict is part of life.

Walsh thinks a favourable ratio of positive to negative family interactions can protect children, and that parents should generally try to get on better. He points out that the 17- to 20-year-olds in his study, of whom 27 had experienced moderate family discord, were all healthy people.