To reach their conclusions, researchers first classified the participating families as either high- or low-conflict, based on surveys filled out by the mothers. Then, their kids viewed photos of couples who looked angry, happy, and neutral, as researchers measured their brain activity via an EEG.
The kids' brains in the high-conflict group reacted more strongly to the angry-looking couples than those in the low-conflict group. A similar reaction was noted when the kids looked at happy couples, but had been asked to pick out the angry ones.
Researchers say what they witnessed carries over to the home.
"They're being watchful in the home in the same way that they're watching for angry faces in the research setting," explains study author Alice Schermerhorn, assistant professor in UVM's Department of Psychological Science. She adds about the reaction to the happy looking couples: "The pattern suggests children from high-conflict homes, by training their brains to be vigilant, process signs of interpersonal emotion, either anger or happiness, differently than children from low-conflict homes."
The takeaway? Kids who witness their parents arguing a lot at home may struggle in social situations, and have trouble making friends. Just another reason to take your conflicts to another room, or save heated debates for after bedtime.
Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.