Parental conflict occurs in every relationship and can sometimes lead to feelings of anger, even extreme anger, between partners or ex-partners. Parental conflict can mean many things and can often take the form of loud, angry arguments. One common feature of parental conflict is each person blaming the other for what's going on.
Parental conflict is generally issue-focused. While the parents may have clear differences or preferences, they are often able to negotiate a solution to the conflict. There might be greater levels of blaming and may include patterns of relating carried over from experiences in their own family. While the intensity of conflict may vary, this will have different impact for each individual child depending on their individual characteristics, background, resilience and vulnerability, and their circumstances.
Parental conflict is not to be confused with Domestic Abuse which includes hitting or pushing, name-calling, checking partner's phone or social media, scaring a partner by shouting at them, calling a partner names, punching or smashing objects, stopping a partner from going out and telling a partner what to wear (among many other things).
Any practitioner or volunteer working with children, young people and families can have an impact on reducing parental conflict. The risk of conflict between parents is higher at crucial transition points in family life, such as becoming pregnant, having a baby, a child starting or changing school, or separation and divorce. It is also known that around 11% of all children in the UK have parents who are in a distressed relationship, with children in workless families almost three times as likely to experience this.
Reducing parental conflict may be one of the most important ways of reducing child mental health problems. However, relationship difficulties are often seen as a private matter, and couples tend to only seek help when they are in crisis. Front-line practitioners can often lack the confidence, tools and knowledge to raise relationship issues with parents and so miss opportunities to identify and support families experiencing parental conflict.
Children are vulnerable to the impact of conflict whether their parents are together or apart, or in the process of separation.
Children are able (more than we think!) to pick up on tension between parents, which can make them worry. When conflict becomes loud, aggressive arguments children are likely to feel very scared. What makes it worse for them is that the very people who are the ones they look to for comfort when they are frightened are the ones being scary. It can be confusing for small children who can't understand what is going on and are likely to blame themselves for the arguing. If aggressive arguments happen often then children live with these bad feelings much of the time when parents live together. If parents are separated it can cause them to feel very anxious when their parents have contact with each other, for example when they are being collected or dropped off.
Children can develop difficulties when there is conflict between parents:
Children may also be less troubled by conflict when parents are able to resolve an argument. However, this 'resolution' needs to be genuine. Children are not fooled when parents tell them things have been sorted out but fail to relate to each other in ways that demonstrate that the relationship has been repaired. Parents' actions need to echo their words. Children can learn behaviours that are helpful in their relationships with others from observing parents handling conflict well.
Children are also at risk of a range of health difficulties (Troxel and Matthews, 2004) including:
Difficulties can extend into school, with children less able to settle, more likely to have trouble getting on with peers, and less likely to achieve academically because of the impact of conflict between parents on children's cognitive abilities and attention (Harold et al, 2007).
Conflict between parents is one of the key factors that explain why other family difficulties, such as impoverished circumstances, parental depression or substance abuse, are also associated with poor outcomes for children (Du Rocher Schudlich and Cummings, 2007).
During angry conflict there is sometimes the temptation to hurt the other person in some way, either physically or emotionally. Doing so is abusive – always. When looking at conflict between intimate partners, or people who used to be intimate partners, we often find that children are used as weapons to inflict emotional hurt or exert control. This is also abusive towards the children themselves and being used in a conflict between parents can wreak childhoods. Here are a few ways that children are commonly used as weapons during parental conflict:
There are many other ways besides these that children can be used as weapons in parental conflict. To reiterate, this behaviour constitutes abuse, not only towards the adult involved in the conflict but the child too.
An example; a child has parents that are separated and in conflict. They see the parent they don't normally live with at weekends. This contact is cancelled at short notice by this parent, prompting the other parent to tell the child "your mum/ dad doesn't care about you". This is emotionally abusive towards the child. Even if this is their genuine opinion it is clearly not in the child's best interests to hear it because they are likely to feel hurt and rejected.
Financial difficulties impact on parental mental health, which can increase parental conflict. This in turn can impact on parenting and children's outcomes. According to data from the Department of Work and Pensions, children in workless families are up to three times more likely to experience damaging parental conflict.
A range of factors have been identified that help explain why some children are more vulnerable to the impact of conflict between parents than others. Boys and girls may experience and react to conflict differently, although with equally deleterious outcomes for both. This is because of differences in how girls and boys react to conflict, socialisation into different roles for boys and girls, and interactions between the sex of the parent and the sex of the child (Davies and Lindsay, 2001).
Older children appear to be more vulnerable to the impact of conflict between parents than younger children. This may be explained, however, by a number of factors, including a failure to fully capture the impact on younger children and the interplay of age and developmental stage and how that affects children's responses to conflict. It may also simply mean that older children have become more sensitive to conflict because they have been exposed to it for a longer period of time compared to younger children.
Children's temperaments can also serve to increase or reduce their vulnerability to inter-parental conflict. Children with a difficult temperament are more vulnerable to the impact of conflict between parents. Biological factors, including specific genetic susceptibilities and early brain development, may explain why some children are at greater short and long term risk for negative outcomes as a result of living with high levels of inter-parental conflict and discord as well as the perpetration of conflict based behaviours across generations (Ramos et al, 2005; Whiteside-Mansell, 2009).
Children's physiological makeup can also play an important role in differentiating between children who are at greater risk of poor outcomes. For example, some children's nervous systems help them to regulate their feelings and responses to conflict more effectively than other children (El Sheikh and Erath, 2011).
Children's coping strategies can also be important. In general, emotion-focused strategies, that help children to distance themselves from parental conflict, are associated with better outcomes for children than problem-solving strategies that may result in children becoming embroiled in the situation (Shelton and Harold, 2008).
A warm sibling relationship can also buffer children from the impact of a high conflict home (Grass et al, 2007). However, sibling relationships can also suffer with complicated alliances and divisions emerging within families, or as one child protects him or herself by deflecting parental anger towards a sibling (Cox et al, 2001).
A range of approaches to supporting parents have been developed and assessed over recent years though few have focused directly on couple conflict alone.
CAFCASS also has a number of tools that can be used at: https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/professionals/ciaf/resources-for-assessing-harmful-conflict.
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