Doesn’t family fighting seem contagious? One moment you’re in a shouting match with your wife; the next moment, you’re yelling at your kid. Now, a new study suggests that “spillover conflicts” are a very real social phenomenon. The researchers found that parents are more likely to start up with their kids after a major interparental blowout and that, similarly, parents are more likely to confront each other after confronting a child—even an entire day after the initial conflict.
Spillover conflict is defined as “short-term affective changes in parents that affect their behavior with other family members” and prior studies have shown that parents’ daily mood swings affect how they interact with their children and that stress at work can cause parents to lash out at their children inappropriately. But how exactly parent-parent conflict affects parent-child conflict had remained an open question.
For this new study, researchers conducted daily telephone interviews with 60 parents of children with aggressive tendencies, asking for the details of various family spats. They found that, after two parents fight with one another, there is a significantly higher chance of one of those parents fighting with a child within the next 24 hours. Similarly, parents who reported fighting with their kids were significantly more likely to report fighting with their spouses within the next 24 hours.
Conflict isn’t the only thing that’s contagious. The study suggests that fighting styles also migrate between parents and children, and that how we fight with one another predicts how we’ll fight with our kids. The researchers identified two types of conflict—constructive (the benefits of the argument outweigh the costs) and destructive (the costs of the argument outweigh the benefits)—and found that parents who engage in constructive conflict with one another are less likely to engage in destructive conflict with their children within the next 24 hours.
So it may be true that conflict spreads throughout the home, but parents who insist on arguing constructively have a good chance of passing along those good habits to their kids. “There is no such thing as a relationship entirely free from conflict and disagreement, and surely all children see their parents argue at one time or another,” explains the Institute of Family Studies. “When parents relate to each other calmly and positively even during a disagreement, solve the problem together, and show children through their subsequent interactions that the conflict has been resolved, then the children may be unaffected.”
There is even the possibility that children might learn how to argue effectively and generously. Or, you know, the opposite.