04/11/2017 11:37 EDT

Parents' Fights May Cause More Harm Than Divorce To Kids: Study

If you're going to fight, fight fair.

Plenty of research over the years has shown how a divorce can negatively affect the couple's children, but some new evidence out of the U.K. hypothesizes that it isn't the divorce itself that causes problems, but rather the fighting that came before it.

In a paper presented at the Royal Economic Society this week, researcher Gloria Moroni noted that most of the behavioural damage seen in children of divorce was there before the split even happened.

parents fighting kid sad

In an analysis of 19,000 children in the U.K., a skills gap was found between children in divorced families and those whose parents were together, with kids of divorce having approximately 20 per cent of a standard deviation lower cognitive skills and 30 per cent of a standard deviation lower non-cognitive skills compared with children whose parents are together. The non-cognitive skills — which are defined as attitudes, behaviours, and strategies which facilitate success by the Education Endowment Foundation — were of particular interest, as research showed 50 per cent of this gap was caused by inter-parental conflict.

It's well-known in the world of child psychology that, more than anything, children want their parents to make them feel safe, and when parents fight, it can create anxiety for their offspring, leading to further problems down the road.

Of course, it's basically impossible not to fight with your partner, so it's important to remember that the kids are always watching.

"When kids witness a fight and see the parents resolving it, they’re actually happier than they were before they saw it,” E. Mark Cummings, a psychologist at Notre Dame University, told Developmental Science. “It reassures kids that parents can work things through."

"When parents go behind closed doors and come out acting like they worked it out, the kids can detect that." — Psychologist E. Mark Cummings

He notes that hostile fighting, which includes tactics like name-calling, threatening to leave, being physically aggressive, becoming withdrawn, and even pretending to forgive when it's obvious you haven't, is what can harm a child emotionally.

“When parents go behind closed doors and come out acting like they worked it out, the kids can detect that,” Cummings says. "They’ll see you’re pretending."

So the best thing you can do for your kid is the best thing you can do for your relationship as well — figure out how to fight in a way that actually resolves the conflict, and helps you all move forward.