Can Arguing Predict Developmental Problems in Infants?

June 3, 2009

When parents fight, children’s development can suffer, which can lead to emotional problems later in life. But just how severe are those problems, and how early in their lives are children affected? As the recipient of a National Institute of Mental Health training grant, Nissa Towe-Goodman, Human Development and Family Studies doctoral candidate in Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, will be seeking the answers to these questions. Her mentors for the grant will be Drs. Cindy Stifter and Michael Rovine, both professors of human development and family studies.

“There have been many studies on how fighting affects adolescents and children, but very few that focus on infants,” says Towe-Goodman. “Emotions are the language that babies speak—they are certainly affected by parental conflict, especially when it becomes heated.”

Towe-Goodman will be assessing the effects of conflict and arguing on infants at several periods of their development:  six months, fifteen months, twenty-four months, and thirty-five months. She’ll be analyzing stress system functioning and emotional regulation in infants, and also examining surveys and videotapes of parents.

Parents reported how frequently and intensely they argued. Their arguing was videotaped multiple times, which will show researchers the manner in which parents handle or resolve conflicts, and also the intensity of the arguments.

To measure emotional regulation in children, Towe-Goodman is examining infants in a variety of tasks that test their emotional development. One example of this is the “toy removal test”—infants play with a toy for a few minutes, at which point it is taken away, put within their sight but out of reach. Based on how the children react to this situation (whether they start screaming or get an adult to help them retrieve the toy), Towe-Goodman will be able to assess whether or not the children have learned valuable emotional skills.

To measure stress system functioning, Towe-Goodman will be using saliva samples of the babies. She will be analyzing levels of cortisol, which is a known marker of the body’s natural system that deals with stress. Insufficient or excessive levels of cortisol could indicate that a baby’s stress-response system has not developed appropriately.

The combination of these three components should give Towe-Goodman a well-constructed picture of how emotional conflict can affect infants.

“I’m interested in how early exposure to conflict can set children up for emotional risks later, and how we can prevent those emotional risks,” said Towe-Goodman.

Towe-Goodman’s research utilizes data obtained in the Family Life Project (FLP). FLP is a collaboration between Penn State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that compiled data to study children and families living in predominantly low-income, rural communities.

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Editors: Nissa Towe-Goodman can be reached at nrt1@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.