• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Tuesday 31st August, 2010

When children blame themselves for their parents' unhappiness

No surprise to learn from new UK research that children whose parents fight run a high risk of underachieving at school. But the evidence being assembled by Gordon Harold and his Cardiff University colleagues is also beginning to explain why, by shedding light on the psychological processes that translate cause into potentially damaging effect.The link between the family context and children’s psychological development is well established. There are known connections between levels of psychological adjustment (particularly in relation to their emotions and behavior) and factors such as parental mental illness and divorce – as well as inter-parental conflict.However, investigations such as those by Cardiff's School of Psychology are extending the range of the known effects by unpicking the broader family context and examining other aspects of children’s development.The study tracked the experience of 230 UK schoolchildren aged between 11 and 13 and that of their parents and teachers over a two-year period (1999-2001). Researchers cataloged children’s and parents’ reports of inter-parental conflict, as well as information about the parent-child relationship, the children’s appraisals of inter-parental conflict, teachers’ reports of children’s behavior, and children’s scores on Key Stage Three standardized academic tests (SATs).The findings suggest that children living in households characterized by high levels of inter-parental conflict are indeed at risk of lower attainment at school, and, importantly, that children’s own appraisal of their parents’ conflict and their tendency to blame themselves for what they see happening is the mechanism through which any damage is done. Self-blaming was found to lead to lower academic attainment and, in some cases, to aggressive behavior.Some clear lessons for researchers, practitioners and policy makers are emerging. For example, the finding that the inter-parental relationship has a direct influence on the development of the child is a strong argument for early intervention, particularly in light of the fact that academic success is consistently shown to be an important predictor of adult adjustment. Secondly, such services should surely involve direct work with child as well as parents if they are to deal with the condition of self-blame that seems to have the power to translate the risk factor of inter-parental conflict into negative outcomes for children.• Summary of Harold G T, Aitken J, Shelton K H. (in press) "Inter-parental Conflict and Children’s Academic Attainment: A longitudinal analysis", Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.• first published in Prevention Action on November 15th 2007

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