Door opened on the secret world of the marital dispute

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The secret world of the marital row is being probed by researchers investigating the effects of domestic feuding on teenage children.

Volunteer children and their families are being quizzed about their relationships and some of them will be filmed as they discuss thorny topics like money, education, schooling, and in-laws. Psychologists will then assess how the children react and what situations they find the most stressful.

Psychologists at the University of Wales, Cardiff, are recruiting 500 schoolchildren aged 12 to 15 and their families for a three to five year study into the effect of marital conflict on the children and its links with childhood depression and behavioural problems.

One theory being tested is that children model themselves on the behaviour of their parents. Another is that youngsters come out better if the argument between their parents is settled in front of them. Yet another is that children who witness arguments between their parents feel less secure in their own relationships with their parents.

The aim of the work is to come up with advice for parents on how feuding may effect their children, says family psychologist, Dr Gordon Harold.

"Children clearly respond to what is going on between parents. We will be looking at the children's perceptions of events and about depression, maladjustment and anti-social behaviour. We will be looking at the child's understanding of what is happening and the effects. Are the effects, for example, more potent if the child is the focus of the argument," he said.

"Conflict of some kind occurs in all homes. The bottom line to this research is finding information that will help parents understand how children interpret family events, how they view the sort of things that parents take for granted. We want to show parents how their behaviour can effect children."

In the first part of the research, the children will fill in questionnaires about their family life, and the parents will complete similar forms about their marriage and relationship.

Parents will be asked, for instance, about marital satisfaction and whether, when disagreements arise, they result in husbands or wives giving in or whether there is give and take. They will be asked about measures of agreement and disagreement over a variety of domestic issues.

Once the forms are done, the researchers are planning a second phase in which some of the volunteer families will be filmed both in a family interaction laboratory at the university and in sessions at home.

"At this observational stage, some families who volunteer will come into the laboratory and sit in front of a camera and talk. After that we would like to put camcorders in some people's homes, maybe their kitchens, because you really need to see how they behave in their natural environment," said Dr Harold.

The team hope that by pinpointing what children find the most stressful, strategies can be introduced which will lessen the likelihood of behavioural problems in later adolescence.