The Impact of Peripheral Negative Emotions on Babies

Is it my imagination or does Gareth wake up and start fussing every time he hears Gavin cry?  I’d been wondering what it is about night duty with my two boys that they seem to decide they both need me to attend to them at the same time?  After a little closer observation, I’ve come to realise that it most often Gavin’s crying that causes Gareth to stir in his sleep.  This happens whether it is night time or during the day time and it’s given me a little more food for thought…

When Gavin was a baby, my SIL and I were watching a movie while he slept.  In the movie, a couple started a rather heated argument and suddenly Gavin started wailing in his sleep.  My SIL and I were so shocked, we quickly turned off the TV and stopped watching the movie.  At the time, I thought it must have been the sound of the argument from the TV that woke Gavin up, but I didn’t really give it too much thought beyond that.  Upon reflection, I wonder if the argument on TV was in some way distressing to Gavin?  Similarly, when Gareth “hears” Gavin crying, he is also becomes distressed.

I have also noticed that Gareth often stirs from his sleep when I get cross with Gavin and begin to raise my voice as I tell him off.  Is there some correlation to all of this or am I picking at straws?  In other words, I am hypothesising about the sensitive nature of babies towards conflict.  The sounds of negative emotions – arguments, crying, etc. – causes them distress in some way.

I recall reading somewhere – was it in Nurture Shock or another book, I forget – that children should not be shielded from conflict in the family.  The most important part of conflict is that children must see the resolution of conflict.  If Mum and Dad have an argument, it is okay for a child to be witness to it, however, the child must also see Mum and Dad make up.  The emotional damage done to children is when they do not witness the resolution of conflict.

Even arguing out of sight and out of hearing does not protect a child from conflict as children have this innate sense of knowing when something is wrong.  I think it largely has to do with a child’s strong sense of self-preservation.  If Mum and Dad argue, it threatens the security of the child’s home and increases the possibility of the home falling apart, especially if Mum and Dad cannot resolve their differences and choose to part ways.  The separation of parents (whether for better or worse) is always a concern to a child whose sense of security is founded on the union of his parents.

Of course one could argue that in some cases separation might be healthier for a couple than remaining together and that it would be better for the child in the long run.  Nevertheless, I think it is akin to how babies are afraid to be left alone because they are not aware that they are safe in the room that their parents have put them in.  They still run on basic instincts that distance from their parents means they are at risk of becoming a predator’s prey.  Likewise, a child cannot know that things will still be okay even if his parents separate and that there are laws to ensure the security of the child should parents separate.

I’m digressing…  My original point of this thread of thoughts is that if children are affected by conflict – especially conflict that does not get resolved – and if babies are also affected by conflict they hear, what would be the effects of a baby growing up in a household that is constantly in conflict?  How do the negative emotions affect the baby?  Unlike a child who can witness conflict resolution, what would a baby make of it all when understanding is still developing?

Okay, my mind’s be spinning again but this is what happens when my sleep is disturbed…  So tell me, what do you think?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “The Impact of Peripheral Negative Emotions on Babies

  1. Babies are certainly very sensitive to the emotions of those near them. Some instances:
    – my fussy boy calms downs more easily when the person carrying him is calm
    – he was fine during lunch one day until his toddler cousin started to fuss and cry, then he cried too
    – my mum observed this when I was a toddler: I cried often when my younger sister cried (she was 18 months younger than me).


  2. It is amazing how perceptive they can be. I wonder at what stage this perceptiveness disappears. Some adults are about as perceptive as a brick wall, yet kids always seem to know the underlying tension in everything…


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