Chronic Parental Conflict: How it Can Be Harmful for Children

The wish of basically all children is that their parents do not argue or fight with each other and can, in some way, work out difficulties in a mature fashion without resorting to hurtful comments and behaviors. This wish has a strong basis in reality as ongoing, unresolved, chronic conflict between parents, whether living together or separated, has an extremely negative impact on the current and future mental health of their children.

What is Chronic Parental Conflict?

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.

How is Chronic Parental Conflict Harmful to Children?

1. Negative Impact on Children’s Mental Health

What is very destructive psychologically for children is for them to experience 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. What severely damages children emotionally is bitter, long-lasting, ongoing conflict between parents, whether the parents live together or not.

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 behavior problems, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, low self-esteem, school problems and a number of other difficulties.

2. Children Feel Unsafe

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.

3. Children Worry About Taking Sides

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.

4. Children Feel Guilty

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.

5. Poor Role-Modeling for Children

Children learn lessons about how to get along with others from how their parents get along with each other. If parents only model unhealthy ways to communicate and resolve problems, most likely that is how their children will communicate and solve problems with others when they grow up to be adults.

6. Quality of Parenting Decreases

Chronic parental conflict increases stress on parents, which can result in the decreased use of effective parenting skills over time, with a resulting negative impact on the children.

7. Parent-Child Relationships May Suffer

In the absence of severe problems, it is healthy for children and they need to be allowed to develop a relationship with both parents regardless of how the parents feel about each other.

If a child constantly hears bad things about one parent from another parent, the danger is that the parent-child relationship of the criticized parent may weaken. This can also work in the opposite direction, since a child can resent a parent who criticizes and refuses to respect the other parent, especially as the child grows older.

What Can You Do About Chronic Parental Conflict?

1. Shield Your Child From Destructive Parental Conflict

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

Verbal hostilities between parents can affect children in extremely negative ways. Your child should be shielded from hostile interactions that include the following: yelling and screaming; put-downs, name-calling and harsh criticism; blaming; mocking and sarcastic remarks; hostile and aggressive facial expressions; and threats of harm and intimidation. Be aware that phone conversations between parents can also get very hostile, your child needs to be shielded from these as well.

Of course, children should never be exposed to any physical violence such as parents throwing things or damaging things, or physical violence between parents such as grabbing, shoving, slapping, hitting, kicking or any other form of physical assault. This is very damaging for children to be exposed to.

It is imperative that parents learn to restrain themselves and to control their emotions when the children are present or within hearing distance. This can be a very difficult task and may require professional help (see point number 8 below). Sensitive and difficult issues between parents should always be discussed at private meetings, or in the presence of others such as counsellors, mediators or lawyers if necessary.

2. Learn and Practice Healthy Communication Skills

Differences of opinion between people are part of normal everyday life and there are healthy ways to deal with these differences and not so healthy ways. There are many resources available on developing and using healthy communication skills, which include expressing ideas and feelings, active listening, problem solving, and negotiation and conflict resolution strategies.

By applying these new ways of communicating to relationships in your life, you are modeling healthy communication and conflict resolution strategies for your child. These new strategies will change the emotional tone in your family from one of hostility and conflict to one of respect and cooperation.

Remember, differences of opinion are okay as long as they are handled constructively. Modeling respect for others, compromising, and cooperation are invaluable learning experiences you can provide for your child.

3. Give Your Child Some Information

Children need to know a bit about what is going on between their mom and dad when there is parental conflict. You need to be honest with your child in a brief and reassuring manner. You should not, however, provide them with any long explanations or emotional details of the conflict. A brief explanation that mom and dad 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.

4. Don’t Criticize the Other Parent in Front of Your Child

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 careful 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.

5. Don’t Let Your Child Take Sides

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.

6. Don’t Make Children Your Confidantes

There can be a huge temptation for you to lean on your child for support if you are in conflict with the other parent, but please resist this temptation. Even if your child seems to be coping well and seems to be happy and well adjusted, leaning on your child for support is very damaging to him or her and can lead to long-term problems. The message children need to see and hear is that you are in control of things and know what you are doing. Remember that they are children and you are an adult dealing with an adult problem.

It is important for you as an adult to get support for yourself from a friend, relative, or professional and not to struggle with these issues by yourself. Be careful if your child is starting to seem like a friend, adult, or second parent in the home; kids need to be kids.

7. Help Your Child Deal With Anger

Parents may have role-modeled inappropriate ways of dealing with anger when in conflict with each other. Children may even have witnessed physical violence between their parents. Since anger is a normal emotion that arises in all people, everyone, adults and children included, needs to learn strategies to be able to express and control anger appropriately. Your child may need help in this area. There are many books and other resources for parents to help their children deal appropriately with anger.

8. Seek Professional Help

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 or couples counselling may be appropriate for some parents to help them put into practice new and better ways to communicate with each other. Many counsellors specialize in working with couples to resolve these communication issues. Seek out those counsellors whose area of expertise is in couple relationships.

Sometimes parent education or coaching is helpful for parents who are in conflict with each other. Parents usually have different parenting styles. Part of reducing conflict between parents is to understand how parents with different parenting styles can work together. Look for parenting groups and counsellors who specialize in parent coaching.

For parents who are separated or divorced, developing a workable co-parenting strategy is necessary. Learning to co-parent without conflict can be extremely difficult, but it can be done and is worth the effort involved. It is in the child’s best interests if separated parents are able to work out co-parenting strategies that involve minimal conflict and hostilities. Remember, there will be many things to decide upon over the years ahead.

Family mediators can help in situations where parents are unable to work things out themselves. Getting lawyers involved may be necessary, however lawyers usually work from an adversarial approach that often promotes competition rather than cooperation between parents.

One new option is collaborative family law. This process ensures a non-adversarial atmosphere and involves a team of family lawyers, divorce coaches (counsellors who have expertise in couple and family dynamics), child specialists (counsellors who focus on the children’s emotional needs), and financial specialists. This approach can be much easier on all parties involved in the separation, especially the children. See the next section for a website that will provide more information on collaborative family law.

Finally, to support children who have been exposed to chronic, ongoing parental conflict, individual counselling or play therapy for these children is advisable. 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 children to help them come to terms with these painful memories.

Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2007. All Rights Reserved.


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Kathy Eugster, MA, RCC, CPT-S

MA, Counselling Psychology
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Certified Play Therapist – Supervisor
Child and Family Therapist

Kathy Eugster