Dec. 8, 2009— -- Conventional wisdom has always held that children suffer when parents argue, but one study has found that it might actually be good for children to see their parents argue if the disagreement is resolved the right way.
They set up a home-like environment with cameras, and hired actors to play out arguments, showing children different scenarios of clashing parents.
Researchers tested about 500 children aged 5 to 18 over the course of 20 years, monitoring their reaction to the arguments. Sometimes they took saliva samples from the children to study their levels of cortisol, which is the primary hormone produced by stress.
Researchers found that when the actors played out an argument where the resolution was positive, the children learned from the experience.
"Children actually are not disturbed by it if there are sincere efforts to problem-solve," said Mark E. Cummings, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and the lead researcher on the ongoing study. "They actually are happy about it, which surprised us to find that kids would actually say they're happy to see the parents work it out."
Po Bronson, co-author of the parenting book "NutureShock," said he is more likely to resolve conflicts with his wife in front of his two children -- an 8-year-old boy and 5-year-old girl -- to show them that even though he and his wife may disagree, they love each other.
"We do fight in front of the children," Bronson said today on "Good Morning America." Instead of delaying the resolution, Bronson and his wife say "maybe we should start working it out right now."
Parents' Conflict May Have Lasting Effects on Children
Children are acutely attuned to the quality of their parents' relationship, the study found.
According to the findings, the typical married couple has about eight disputes a day. Even though parents may try to shield their children from their squabbles -- whether they be over picking up the dry cleaning or doing the dishes, or something more serious -- children witnessed their parents' arguments about 45 percent of the time.
Bronson called such incidents teachable moments.
If parents wait to resolve the conflict until later, it can "leave kids really stressed," Bronson said. "What works is to start to work it out ... it makes kids much more secure and confident."
If parents pause mid-argument to take their conflict elsewhere, they should tell their children afterward that the argument was resolved, Bronson said.
Children need to learn that "we're not perfect," Bronson said. "Talk about it."
In one experiment, children who saw a staged conflict along with the resolution were calm, but those who were allowed to see just a portion of the argument -- without the resolution -- were negatively affected. They shouted, got angry or hit a pillow.
The lesson is that if children see grown-ups fighting and making up, those children learn that disagreements can be stepping stones to solutions, Cummings said.
The researchers also discovered that children as young as a year old were very sensitive to marital conflict.
Po Bronson on 'Constructive Conflict Resolution'
Bronson said parents can learn how to argue and resolve conflict in front of their children.
That teaches children "constructive conflict resolution," which they can then apply to their friendships and future romantic relationships.
In the study, children who don't see the entire argument, or who see just the beginning but not the resolution, can become overly dramatic in their conflicts, he said. They may become more erratic in their behavior, and their relationships may suffer.
Boys and girls react differently to parental conflicts, he added.
Boys show more anxiety in the short term and rebound faster, and while girls may not seem as affected initially, the conflict depresses them for at least a couple of weeks, he said.
"Boys tend to get more anxious and recover more quickly," Bronson said. "Girls get sad and depressed."