Some level of conflict between parents is a common occurrence in nearly every household (Davies & Woitach, 2008). But when the degree of conflict escalates to include violence, disengagement, or unresolved endings, an atmosphere of doubt about one’s own safety and concern for other family members may develop among children (Cummings & Davies, 1996). This kind of environment is also prone to increasing children’s risk for a plethora of psychological problems including anxiety, aggression, depression, and various social problems (Grych & Fincham, 2001). The concept of emotional security strives in capturing this complex dynamic by organizing and then explaining all the parts in a coherent manner.
The theory of emotional security notes that the negative effects of various parenting problems including not displaying enough warmth, being unresponsive, and intrusiveness on children’s psyche can be explained by children being unable to use their parents as a source of support and protection (Hilburn-Cobb, 2004). In other words the theory of emotional security argues that the caliber of attachment is indicative of how safe or vulnerable children feel in the presence of conflict among parents.
The theory of emotional security goes beyond the concept of attachment by contending that having a feeling of security with other family members is also important. Attachment theory asserts that during times of stress or threat children are inclined to maximize protection from their caregiver (Bowlby, 1969). They achieve this goal by expressing their own distress, seeking comfort, seeking proximity, and increasing their monitoring of the caregiver.
The theory of emotional security on the other hand argues that conflict among parents triggers social defense system in children that bring about a different set of behaviors than attachment theory (Davies & Woitach, 2008). The sorts of behaviors that get triggered during interparental quarrel include fear, distress, fight behaviors (siding with one of the parents, showing aggression), flight behaviors (avoiding the situation, inhibiting one’s own emotions), mediating strategies including comforting parents, and an increased sensitivity to threat during interparental conflict.
Differences in emotional security among children can be explained by the history of conflict among one’s parents. Homes with continuous high level of conflict are likely to sensitize children to be concerned about their own security because such conflicts last a long time, increase the probability of future conflicts, have a detrimental effect on parent-child relationships, and damage the stability of the family. Being concerned about one’s own security is adaptive for children as it allows them to cope with threats that are brought upon by interparental conflict. For example, being sensitive to when a conflict is about to begin may trigger involvement behavior from a child to help prevent the escalation of the conflict.
There are many ways to deal with conflict among parents and some of the strategies are dependent upon broader family environment. If there is support from broader family unit then children may learn to develop self confidence, self efficacy, and regulation of emotions, in spite of facing heightened interparental conflict.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Cummings, E.M., & Davies, P. (1996). Emotional security as a regulatory process in normal development and the development of psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 123-139.
Davies, P.T., & Woitach, M.J. (2008). Children’s emotional security in the interparental relationship. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 269-274.
Grych, J.H., & Fincham, F.D. (Eds.). (2001). Interparental conflict and child development: Theory, research, and application. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hilburn-Cobb, C. (2004). Adolescent psychopathology in terms of multiple behavioral systems: The role of attachment and controlling strategies and frankly disorganized behavior. In L. Atkinson & S Goldberg (Eds.), Attachment issues in psychopathology and intervention (pp. 95-135). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
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