To protect children from the stress of hearing sharp words and arguing voices, plenty of parents hold off on bickering until after their baby's bedtime. But this well-meaning strategy may not work, according to new research that says the sound of parental discord can trigger infants' stress alter brain responses—even when they are asleep!
The soon-to-be published study, led by University of Oregon psychological scientist Alice Graham, used MRI to map the sleeping brains of 6- to 12-month-old babies. As indicated by parents in surveys filled out before the study began, infants came from homes representing a wide range of parental conflict, from serious discord to relative harmony.
Once the babies were sleeping, a male adult spoke nonsense sentences in a variety of tones, from irate to happy to neutral. Graham watched to see whether infants from families where parents argued a lot showed abnormal brain responses and sensitivity to angry speech.
They did. As the Huffington Post reports, even infants from families where parents only argued moderately showed more activity in regions of the brain associated with processing stress and emotion compared to babies from more harmonious homes. What's more, brain responses showed that babies as young as 6 months old could differentiate between happy and angry speech. Graham says these findings may prove that babies exposed to angry voices when asleep are having their brains trained to become hypersensitive to negative emotions.
Occasional disagreements are a normal part of life for most parents, but wiring your kid's brain to feel stressed out right along with you? Here are some expert tips on how parents can air grievances without putting children in harm's way:
- Voices Carry: Arguments can begin in a flash, changing that whispered conversation into a yelling match without you even being conscious of it. "The first thing parents need to recognize is when they are actually in a disagreement. Often one part of the couple is clueless about an argument. It's when it is in the heat of the battle that parents often find themselves wondering how they got there," David Simonsen, M.S., LMFT, tells BabyZone. Dr. Susan Bartell, psychologist and syndicated parenting columnist, agrees. "Kids can hear fights even when they're asleep or you think they are, despite how unlikely this may seem," she says.
- Play by the Rules: Set up some ground rules for contentious discussions—and stick to them. "If you must fight, agree to do it outside your home, not just in another room," advises Dr. Bartell. If it's a pretty major storm that's brewing for you, leave your child with another care giver so you and your partner have the space to get things hashed out.
- Argument Alternatives: Fighting by text? Emailing your gripes? "Screaming, yelling, and threats are most destructive to kids, even when they don't understand what you're saying," says Dr. Bartell. "Speaking in quiet tones will be received better, but sometimes sending emails/texts, while impersonal, can diffuse a huge argument and not expose your kids to it."
Slipped up and just had a squabble as your wide-eyed infant looked on? Take a deep breath and consider the silver lining. As mom Jenny Bryant explains, "If my husband and I exchange a few unpleasant words in front of our baby, I always make sure he also sees that, eventually, one of us apologizes and the other accepts the apology with a hug and a smile. I think it's good to role model that for every fight, there can be forgiveness."
How do you handle arguments with your partner?