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Parental Conflict: How it Can Be Harmful for Children

April 4, 2013


The following post is by Michelle Morris, Principal Psychologist and Family Therapist at Life Resolutions Caroline Springs

It is common and normal for two parents to have different ideas, opinions, values, and priorities. Part of being successful in a relationship with another person is being able to use appropriate communication skills so that ideas and opinions can be expressed and received with respect and differences of opinion can be worked out using healthy conflict resolution strategies.

If parents do not communicate respectfully with each other and do not have a good strategy for resolving conflicts, the result is chronic, unresolved conflict between the parents. There is an ongoing hostile emotional tone between the parents that continues to erupt over time and in the same patterns.

Conflict never seems to get resolved. The same patterns of angry confrontations are repeated over and over again with only temporary or often no resolution or changes taking place between the parents.

This harmful conflict can range on a continuum from yelling, criticizing, blaming, put-downs, mocking, sarcasm and ignoring at one end of the spectrum, through intimidation and threats of harm, to actual physical violence such as throwing or destroying things, or grabbing, shoving, slapping, hitting, kicking, or any other form of physical assault at the other end of the spectrum.

Chronic parental conflict can take place not only in intact families but also in families where parents have separated or divorced, or have never been married or lived together.

Parental conflict is very destructive for children psychologically when they witness their parents’ continuing, unresolved, hostile conflicts.

Research indicates that children are resilient and highly adaptive in general and can usually cope with and adapt to difficult situations such as separation and divorce. However emotionally bitter, long-lasting, ongoing conflict between parents can be severely damaging.

The longer parental conflict continues and the greater the tension between the parents, the greater the likelihood that psychological difficulties will result for children such as emotional and behaviour problems, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, low self-esteem, school problems and a number of other difficulties.

Chronic parental conflict creates a climate of tension, chaos, disruption and unpredictability in the family environment that is meant to be safe and secure and comfortable to grow up in. Children feel anxious, frightened, and helpless. They may worry about their own safety and their parents’ safety even if there has been no actual or threatened violence.

Children’s imaginations are powerful and they may imagine harm coming to themselves or to one of their family members. If parents are still together there is also worry about divorce and the family being split up.

Children worry that they have to take sides in the conflict. They generally want to please both parents but this becomes impossible and creates stress for children. Children become caught in the middle. Or they may align with one parent against the other, which can be very destructive and unhealthy for all family members.

Children need to know a bit about what is going on between their mother and father when there is parental conflict. You need to be honest with your child in a brief and reassuring manner.

However you should avoid long explanations or emotional details of the conflict. A brief explanation that parents are having problems getting along with each other or agreeing on things, and that there is some effort being made about working things out or getting help is all that is necessary.

It is important also to reassure your child that you will always love him or her.

Children tend to be egocentric and if not told about what is happening in concrete terms, your child may imagine that the conflict is all about him or her and may take the blame for the conflict.

Make sure your child knows that the conflict and arguments are not his or her fault. If your child believes that the fighting is about him or her, it will cause huge amounts of stress.

Children find it easy to complain about and criticize their own parent, but find it very difficult to hear criticism of their parent coming from someone else, even if it is from the other parent.

Children identify with both parents and should not have to feel guilty about loving each parent. Children may experience, either consciously or unconsciously, a parent saying negative things about the other parent as a personal attack because it is a put-down of that aspect of themselves that identifies with the other parent. This has the effect of diminishing a child’s self-esteem, not to mention the danger of weakening parent-child relationships.

Differences in parents and parenting styles are normal and children will have their own unique experiences with each parent. By respecting their own differences, parents teach their children an important lesson on empathy and respecting individual differences in others.

Be cautious when talking to others about the other parent and make sure you withhold critical comments about the other parent when children are present or even in the vicinity. Remember that children can overhear conversations extremely well even if they are out of sight. Phone conversations are especially important to be careful with.

Your child should not be encouraged to take sides or to empathize with you against the other parent.

When there is conflict between parents, a child may feel like he or she has to align with one parent to gain approval from that parent. However, this comes at the expense of feeling guilty for abandoning or rejecting the other parent. It also unbalances a healthy family structure when one parent and child are aligned together against the other parent.

The danger in the long run would be to turn your child against the other parent.

Children often believe they are responsible for the fighting that goes on between their parents. This is especially true if children hear arguments related to different parenting styles, school issues, or financial issues related to them. This guilt from feeling responsible for their parents’ conflict causes much emotional distress for children.

It is important to protect and shield your child from being exposed to conflicts between you and your child’s other parent.

Chronic parental conflict can cause a great deal of stress and can have a negative impact on your own mental health.

Some parents may even try to cope by using alcohol or drugs excessively. Emotional stress from chronic parental conflict will also affect your parenting skills and your child may act out causing even more stress for you. One of the most important things you can do in this situation is to look after yourself, both physically and mentally. Individual counselling is beneficial as a means of emotional support for you during this difficult time.

Family mediators can help in situations where parents are unable to work things out themselves. The involvement of lawyers may be necessary, however lawyers usually work from an adversarial approach that can create more tension rather than cooperation between parents.

Play therapy may be appropriate to support children who have been exposed to chronic, ongoing parental conflict.

Chronic conflict between parents is known to be detrimental to children and can impair normal development. Children who have been exposed to chronic parental conflict will benefit from having a counsellor trained to work with families to help them come to terms with these painful memories.





3 Comments leave one →
  1. Treya Derrington permalink
    April 14, 2013 8:08 am

    Michelle, I really enjoyed reading your post about chronic parental conflict and effect on children. I write family reports for the family law courts, and I really like the way you’ve expressed it, can’t really describe except to say it is expressed in a simple and yet comprehensive way, really connecting the various aspects of what goes on for children.
    Thank you from Treya Derrington in Adelaide.

  2. Ana Do-Nasci permalink
    June 6, 2013 4:09 pm

    Not sure if you are aware that this article is Copyright to Kathy Eugster, 2007 see:


  1. Parental Conflict: How it Can Be Harmful for Children | One Mediation

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