Seemingly harmless, everyday conflicts can make youngsters incapable of interpreting emotions that are not extreme, which may affect their relationships in later life, according to researchers. Shy children are especially vulnerable.
The research shows that the emotional processing of these children, too, can be affected — potentially making them over-vigilant, anxious and vulnerable to distorting human interactions that are neutral in tone, throwing them off-balance interpersonally as adults.
“The message is clear: even low-level adversity like parental conflict isn’t good for kids,” said the study’s lead author Alice Schermerhorn, Assistant Professor at the University of Vermont in the US.
For the study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers recruited 99 children between nine to 11-years-old and divided them into two groups based on a series of psychological assessments they took that scored how much parental conflict they experienced and how much they felt the conflict threatened their parent’s marriage.
Children were then shown a series of photographs of couples engaged in happy, angry or neutral interactions and asked to choose which category the photos fit.
Children from the low conflict homes consistently scored the photos accurately.
Those from high conflict homes who experienced the conflict as a threat were able to accurately identify the happy and angry couples, but not those in neutral poses — incorrectly reading them as either angry or happy or saying they didn’t know which category they fit.
The study is also one of the first to measure the impact of temperamental shyness on the children’s ability to process and recognize emotion, the researcher said.
The shy children in the study, who were identified via a questionnaire given to the mothers of the study subjects, were unable to correctly identify couples in neutral poses, even if they were not from high conflict homes.
Shyness also made them more vulnerable to parental conflict. Children who were both shy and felt threated by their parents’ conflict had a high level of inaccuracy in identifying neutral interactions.