Verbal Conflict During Childhood = Less Stress In Adulthood?
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Depression has long been linked to stress. So it only makes sense that the better able you are to adapt to stressful situations and cope with them, the less likely they are to manifest into full-blown depressive episodes. A recent study published in the journal Human Communication Research by researchers at Rollins College and The Pennsylvania State University found that children who were exposed to intense verbal aggression were better able to handle intense conflict later in life. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should expose children and teens to verbal abuse, or encourage any such encounters. However, it does mean that they may grow up already hardwired to cope with intense arguments and interpersonal situations that others may not be able to process as readily.
The Beginning of The Study
Lindsey Aloia (Rollins College) and Denise Solomon (The Pennsylvania State University) published their findings in the journal Human Communication Research. Aloia and Solomon recruited 100 college students in romantic relationships (50 couples) to see how the effects of past exposure to verbal aggression would manifest itself in stressful adult situations. The participants were individually interviewed and also filled out questionnaires in order to establish the most stress-inducing areas of conflict within the relationship, as well as their exposure to verbal aggression as children.
When the problematic topics were identified, the couples were asked to sit together and discuss an area of conflict for 10 minutes. This interaction was filmed and then watched (on the recorded copy) by trained judges, who ranked the intensity of the conflict communication between each couple.
The researchers took saliva samples to measure levels of cortisol (“the stress hormone”) at baseline (before the discussion), and again at two additional points following their discussions over the course of 20 minutes. The cortisol level taken at each of the three points was calculated to evaluate the stress experience each participant experienced. This enabled the researchers to objectively determine their increase in stress levels as a result of conflict.
The study showed that the more intense the conflict interaction was rated between the couples, the stronger the physiological stress response to the conflict. However, individuals who reported a higher level of childhood exposure to verbal aggression demonstrated lower levels of response. This seems to indicate that being exposed to stressful situations as a child increases your ability to cope with stress as an adult, perhaps because these children have been forced to develop coping strategies more than non-exposed children.
Many other studies illustrate that negative outcomes stem from conflicts, though. These include depression, anxiety, anger, dissatisfaction with the relationship and even physical violence. And the effect of verbal stress on children is well documented. Stress can create high levels of agitation and ultimately it can compromise a child’s health. Long or frequent exposures to arguments and conflict can "condition" children to experience perpetual anxiety, depression, and frustration.
Subjecting children to repeated arguments, should never to be encouraged or condoned, even with the recent research as enlightening and optimistic as it seems. It did not detail the psychological states of the participants, nor their propensity towards arguing. Just because they could better tolerate it, and it was less stressful for them than their non-exposed peers, doesn’t mean they were without their own issues outside the scope of the research.
This study suggests that the reduced stress levels seen in those who experienced verbal aggression as children is more likely due to adaptation as well as learning effective coping mechanisms to help deal with stressful situations. The verbal aggression itself may have negative consequences, but it also encourages individuals to try out coping mechanisms and find effective ways of emotionally dealing with conflict. By recognizing that interpersonal conflict interactions are potential stressors, and understanding the physiological implications of stress, this research highlights how experiencing conflict as an adolescent can help shape an individual’s adaptive capacity to handle that stressor.
"Conflict experiences can be beneficial, by alleviating tension and avoiding conflict escalation, reducing communication apprehension, and contributing to closeness within the relationship," said Aloia. "Given the diversity of outcomes associated with interpersonal conflict, efforts to understand variation in the experienced negativity of conflict experiences are extremely important in helping people navigate these interactions."
Conclusion: Childhood experiences of intense verbal conflict may be linked with an increased tolerance to stress induced by verbal conflict in later life.
- Laura A. Wells
International Communication Association. (2014, November 24). Experience with family verbal conflict as a child can help in stressful situations as an adult. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141124111857.htm