Adult conflict PDF Print E-mail

Children and adult conflict

One of the most anxiety-provoking events for children is when their parents fight. Hearing or seeing parents in conflict threatens the most fundamental aspect of a child’s survival instinct. After all, parents are meant to ensure that everyone is safe. Let’s be clear – we’re not talking about everyday disagreements that are resolved fairly speedily and satisfactorily. In fact, it’s good training for children to see that people can have a disagreement, and yet work it out so that tension and unhappiness dissolve. In this way, they learn that having an argument doesn’t mean that you stop loving or don’t love the other person; that it’s normal to disagree about some things and still have happy lives; and they learn the skills necessary to deal effectively with conflict as they are growing up. However, when children are exposed to parents’ ongoing criticism, name-calling, accusations, put-downs, sarcasm, blaming, shouting, and any of the other aspects of physical or emotional violence (including intimidation, breaking things, ignoring protests, controlling finances or social activity, denying a part in the conflict), their anxiety levels increase to the point that they become chronically stressed. And chronic stress leads to all sorts of problems like vomiting and headaches, anxiety, depression, distractibility, and irritability. Children and adolescents who are chronically stressed struggle to achieve their potential at school or maintain satisfying friendships. They can become withdrawn and miserable and even become at risk of self harm or suicidality.

Exposure to severe conflict between parents increases the likelihood that children themselves will exhibit high levels of aggressive behaviours in various interpersonal relationships (for example with their peers, teachers or parents). In fact, a large body of research demonstrates that conflict between parents is associated with an increased risk for psychological problems among children in all families, whether the parents are together or apart. In our work with the Family Court, where the care of children is being disputed between parents or other caregivers, we see a lot of anxious children who are caught in the middle of intense conflict between the adults who are meant to be taking care of them. This conflict is usually born of longstanding relationship problems between the adults. Children will go to extraordinary lengths to try and stop the conflict – they may lie to the first parent about the second parent if they think this will make the first parent happier (and vice versa); they will behave badly simply to interrupt the parents’ battle, and would rather be getting into trouble from the parents than have the parents fighting with each other; they will withdraw from one or other of the parents in an attempt to avoid the distress of the anxiety caused by the conflict; they may behave very strangely in order to draw the parents’ attention away from each other; and they may try and keep everyone happy by being incredibly obedient and compliant (which isn’t normal all the time!). In any case, parents owe it to their children to protect them from severe, unresolved conflict, and children have the right to grow up in environments unmarked by violence of any kind.