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Passive parental aggression a bitter tonic for children

Just because Brangelina kept the details of their split relatively quiet doesn’t mean the effect of the couple’s conflict on their kids was similarly muted.

For example, perhaps Brad Pitt’s widely rumoured marijuana use caused Angelina Jolie to regularly shoot him seething looks and give him the silent treatment, and research on 232 families has now shown that such behaviour can be just as harmful to children as a series of shouting matches.

Researchers from the University of Rochester and University of Notre Dame in the US found passive parental aggression can have profound consequences for kids: from psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety, to aggressive behaviour. Children’s sleep difficulties, too, can be symptomatic of exposure to any type of parental discord. This, in turn, can impede their scholastic achievement.

Sydney-based child psychologist Andrew Greenfield said passive parental aggression is “quite common, in terms of family dynamics”, and offered some real-life examples of affected kids “They can experience anger, frustration and exhibit defiant behaviours,” he said. This, Greenfield suggested, is their way of trying to reclaim control of an insidiously chaotic family situation.

Other studies even found physical effects of preschoolers’ distress in this regard; some experienced abnormally high heart rates and blood pressure.

Not only does passive parental aggression directly hurt kids, it also affects how they’re parented. According to a paper published by UK relationships charity OnePlusOne, conflicting parents can be hostile or intrusive towards their children or, on the other end of the parenting spectrum, disengaged from them. All of these actions are connected with poor child development outcomes.

As both active aggression and passive aggression harm kids, it seems arguing parents are damned if they do shout and damned if they don’t. But the situation isn’t hopeless; there are other, positive ways to deal with relationship strife – for parents and their children.

Eminent romantic relationships expert John Gottman expounds upon this in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Gottman, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington, wrote that conflict isn’t a given. Couples can become attuned to each other’s needs, so that disagreements don’t arise in the first place. This, in turn, is a skill kids can learn to apply in their future relationships.

In addition to Gottman’s idealistic, fight-free vision, Greenfield noted that, if parental conflict is unavoidable yet resolved respectfully, this can teach kids resilience. “They can learn that life doesn’t always go the way they want, or the way their parents want,” he explained.  “You can’t keep your child in a bubble.”

If the whispered barbs remain, however, children can absorb this manner of behaviour, too, and display it later in life. But this isn’t inevitable. Greenfield remarked that kids need not be exact replicas of their parents: “I try to make them understand that they have the power to change their behaviour,” he said.

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