05/07/2014 11:44 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

When Parents Fight

When I was a child, my parents' fights could suck the oxygen out of a room. My mother verbally lashed my father, broke jam jars and made outlandish threats. Her outbursts froze me in my tracks. When my father fled to work, the garage, or the woods, I felt unprotected. Years later, when my husband and I decided to have children, I resolved never to fight in front of them.

"Children are like emotional Geiger counters," says E. Mark Cummings, psychologist at Notre Dame University who, with colleagues, has published hundreds of papers over 20 years on the subject. Kids pay close attention to their parents' emotions for information about how safe they are in their family, Cummings says. When parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.

As a developmental psychologist, I knew that marital quarreling was inevitable, and that there must be a better way to handle it. Cummings confirms: "Conflict is a normal part of everyday experience, so it's not whether parents fight that is important. It's how the conflict is expressed and resolved, and especially how it makes children feel, that has important consequences." Watching some kinds of conflicts can even be good for kids -- when children see their parents resolve difficult problems, Cummings says, they can grow up better off.

Destructive conflict and harm to children

In Marital Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective, Cummings and coauthor Patrick Davies identify ways parents fight that harm children to witness: verbal or physical aggression, silent tactics like walking out and even capitulation, which results in a peace kids know is false. Parents' silent withdrawal is the worst.

When parents repeatedly use those hostile tactics, their children suffer, they argue. Some become distraught, anxious and hopeless; others become aggressive and develop behavior problems. Children in these households can get sick frequently or develop headaches and stomachaches, Cummings and his colleagues found. Their stress can make it hard to pay attention in school or sleep at night. Most have trouble forming healthy relationships with peers, and siblings may grow overprotective or distant.

In one study of an entire Caribbean village by anthropologists Mark Flinn and Barry England, children living with quarrelsome parents were found to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than did those in more peaceful households. These children frequently became tired and ill; they played less and slept poorly. Later research has shown that chronic stress like theirs can change the developing brain, turning on or off genes that regulate stress; impairing learning and memory; and interfering with brain myelination and nerve signal transmission.

These problems follow them into adulthood. Adults who grew up in high-conflict homes have more physical and emotional health problems and more social problems compared to control groups. They are more likely to report vascular and immune problems, depression, substance dependency, loneliness and problems with intimacy, Cummings argues.

In short, as Cummings puts it, "kids don't get used to it."

The dark side's bright side

Yet in some cases, parents can safely "fight fair" in front of the kids, demonstrating healthy ways to resolve conflict.

"Parents should model real life... at its best," says family therapist Sheri Glucoft Wong, who practices in Berkeley, California. "Let [children] overhear how people really work things out."

When parents engage in moderate conflict that involves support, compromise and positive emotions, children develop better social skills and self-esteem, enjoy increased emotional security, have better relationships with parents and do better in school, Cummings says. Watching parents disagree and make up is so reassuring that it makes kids happier than they were before seeing it. Kids are sophisticated analysts and even a partial solution helps.

But if the conflict starts to go downhill, both Cummings and Glucoft Wong advise taking it behind closed doors. "What our research is showing," says Cummings, "is that parents tend to have worse fights in front of their kids. They're unable to regulate themselves." And Cummings and Glucoft Wong agree that some content is best kept privat e-- discussions about sex or other tender topics are more respectfully conducted without an audience. "Remember that little eyes are watching, little ears are listening," says Glucoft Wong.

Thanks to mindful work and my own loving marriage, the memory of my parents fighting no longer has the blistering effect it once did. When, as preschoolers, our two daughters would interrupt our disagreements with concern, we reassured them with a special code. "The fight is this big," we would say, holding finger and thumb an inch apart. "But the love is this big" -- and we held our arms wide open.

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Glucoft Wong offers five tips to help parents resolve conflict in a healthy way:

1. Lead with empathy. Open the dialogue by putting yourself in your partner's shoes. Example: "I know it must be hard to leave work early,..."

2. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions and acknowledge love with an endearment. Example: "I know you didn't mean to team up with the kids against me, sweetheart...."

3. Remember you're on the same team. Instead of taking sides, deal with problems by laying all the cards on the table and considering them together. Problem solve with one another. That way you both "own" the solution.

4. Constructive criticism only works if something can be done. Blame won't fix what's already happened. If the deadline for soccer signup has passed, remedy the situation as best you can and discuss how to approach it better next time.

5. Voice emotions in a good-hearted way. Disapproval, disappointment, and exasperation can all be handled better with kindness.

This article is adapted from a longer piece on the author's blog