How conflict at home hurts your kid’s brain

Fights with your partner could be getting in the way of your youngster's brain development.

The wrangling can put stress on areas of your child's brain that should be focused on learning and memory instead. This is the message that clinical psychiatrist and McMaster professor, Dr. Jean Clinton, brought to the forum on high conflict and children's emotional harm held last week in Toronto, reports the Toronto Star.

"Childhood experiences build the brain and build the reactivity of the stress system, and the damaging impact of that may not be shown for many, many years," says Dr. Clinton.

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A child's stress stemming from high conflict in the household stimulates the emotional reaction centre in the brain, increasing the heart rate, releasing adrenalin and cortisol. One of the brain areas most affected is the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory.

"When the cortisol is up and stays up, new learning cannot happen," says Dr. Clinton.

The forum is hosted by Jewish Family and Child in Toronto. The organization launched this annual event seven years ago, when it realized that service providers were struggling to help families facing heightened levels of conflict.

"We want to be able to intervene earlier with these families," says Howard Hurwitz, director of programs at Jewish Family and Child. He emphasizes that parents should not draw their children into parental battles.

"Parents should resolve their issues privately," he says, "not within earshot."

But it's not just the yelling that can be damaging for kids. Sometimes the stress can come from more underhanded conduct, such as parents trying to pit their children against the other parent.

"Parents have to be careful not to share inappropriate things with their children," says Hurwitz. He explains that telling the kids directly about a spouse's affair, for example, or assault charges, might be extremely stressful for a child too young to fully comprehend the situation.

"There are ways to share information with kids," he says. "But it has to be age-appropriate, and shouldn't be shared out of anger."

He says that while it's good to reach out for support, parents should try not to bring their support networks, such as extended family, into the marital conflict.

"You want to be careful not to create a war that includes support people, because that will intensify the conflict," he says. If grandma starts, say, telling a child how terrible his father is, it could be very harmful.

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Hurwitz says it's important to look for signs of stress in kids — whether it's behavioural outburts, betwetting, or crying — and provide support. Things like counseling for the child, and getting them involved in recreational activities that give them an emotional outlet, might help lower levels of stress.

While last week's forum focused on stress stemming from separation and divorce, the harm that children face often start long before a breakup. Dr. Clinton mentioned research that shows a child's academic abilities can be affected from four to 12 years before their parents' divorce.

"It's the conflict that's the issue," she says. "It's not divorce that's the issue, it's all the inter-parental stuff that happens before that."

Watch the CBC news video below discussing pressure in some cultural communities to have baby boys instead of girls.