Parental Conflict and Children

Chronic parental conflict harms children, according to Kathy Eugster, MA, a Counseling Psychology 
Registered Clinical Counselor
, Certified Play Therapist and Supervisor 
Child and Family Therapist. Sociologists and researcher agree that parental conflict is the biggest predictor of poor outcomes for children. The level and intensity of the conflict between parents and resolution are the most powerful determinants of the impact. It does not matter whether the parents are married or divorced.

While children are resilient and highly adaptive and cope with separation and divorce, their parents’ “continuing, unresolved, hostile” battling severely damages them. The longer parental conflict continues and the greater the tension between the parents, the greater the likelihood that psychological difficulties result, including depression, sleep problems, low self-esteem, school problems.

When parents battle, children feel unsafe. Chronic parental conflict pollutes the atmosphere with tension, chaos, disruption and unpredictability when the family environment should be safe and secure and comfortable. Children become anxious, frightened, and helpless. They may worry about their own safety and their parents’ safety even without actual or threatened violence. Children’s may imagine harm coming to them or a family member and they may worry about divorce and being split up.

Children worry about taking sides in the conflict because they want to please both parents but this becomes impossible when they are caught in the middle. They may align with one parent, which can be very destructive and unhealthy for all family members.

Sadly children often believe they are responsible for the parental fighting, and they feel guilty, particularly if they hear arguments about different parenting styles, school issues, or financial issues related to them. The guilt from feeling responsible for their parents’ conflict causes much emotional distress.

Children learn the wrong lessons about parenting when parents only model unhealthy — indeed, destructive — ways to communicate and resolve problems. Most likely, they will learn by example, and that is how they will communicate and solve problems with others when they become adults.

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. When 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.

The Effects of Conflict on Children

Some children respond to parental conflict by acting out. They may demonstrate behavior problems, increased anger and inability to manage anger, violent behavior, delinquency, and gang involvement. 

Some children respond to parental conflict by turning inward. They are likely to demonstrate depression, isolation from friends and activities, physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, ulcers, and substance abuse. 

Children who are exposed to parental conflict do not interact well with others. These kids often have very poor social skills, low self-esteem and poor relationships when they become adults. 

Some children exposed to high conflict have trouble thinking. Advances in neuropsychology have shown that when exposed to conflict our brains release stress hormones that over time can actually change brain functioning. The effects of being exposed to conflict show up as problems in school, truancy, impaired thinking (things like problem-solving, abstract reasoning, memory are affected) and symptoms that mimic Attention Deficit Disorder.

Parental conflict is toxic for kids. No parents would dose their children with poison, yet parents who fight in front of their children do just that. The effects of conflict for children are huge. Divorcing parents can protect their children by behaving in front of them. One way to counter the negative effects of conflict on children is to argue cleanly. It take time a to work on solving a problem instead of trying to win at all costs.

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