Parental Conflict: Are Children Vulnerable to Lasting Damage?

Parents fighting is common to the family dynamic. But prolonged overly aggressive, hostile behaviour between parents can spill over to have detrimental effects on child psychopathology.


Fast Facts

  • Studies show that fighting between parents can have negative effects on children’s mental health

  • Chaos, tension, and unpredictability in the family causes chronic stress and anxiety in children of all ages

  • Damage is lasting and leads to deficits in future decision making, emotional regulation, and relationship building


What is the distinction between everyday conflict, and discourse that can impact children?

Volatile and aggressive physical behaviour or verbal discourse are characteristic examples of chronic interparental conflict. This includes anything on the continuum from yelling, criticizing, blaming, mocking, intimidating, threatening, or physically harming the other partner. But studies show that as little as one parent acting withdrawn and disengaged after an argument or showing less affection to the other spouse can be recognized by a child. Children see how parents handle disagreements; whether this be aggression, or passiveness such as walking away from an argument or capitulation (giving in). They learn problem-solving skills, emotion regulation, and conflict resolution through their parents’ examples.

What are the outcomes?

Early childhood is an especially critical time where negative outcomes can manifest, although children at infancy up to adolescence and late teens can be impacted as well. A couple’s relationship can trickle down to impact several levels of child functioning, including the parent-child relationship. Recent studies conducted through longitudinal observations in the home, as well as long-term follow up, suggest that at as early as six months, children exposed to frequent negative parental discourse have increased heart rates and release higher amounts of the stress hormone known as cortisol. These physiological responses can translate into more serious complications including deficits in early brain devolvement, sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and behavioural disorders.

The burden is greatest to a child’s mental health. If the child is the topic of argument, this can lead to children blaming themselves or feeling at fault for family disconnectedness. Fighting leads to an unpredictable home environment for the child, causing them to develop feelings of insecurity. The parent-child relationship can suffer as a result. Children retract from bonding with their parents when they feel unsafe, angry, or scared. Experts suggest that boys and girls respond differently as well. Girls are at higher risk for emotional trauma, whereas boys are at higher risk for behavioural abnormalities.

The damage is apparent throughout life. A 2013 study in Child Development showed that children exposed to parent’s fighting constantly were often stressed, which was associated with decreased cognitive performance in school.

Other studies have found that living in a high conflict family increases the odds of dropping out in high school and receiving poor grades. Children can also struggle to maintain healthy relationships. Being exposed to parents fighting increases the likelihood of kids treating others with hostility. Additionally, several studies have linked eating disorders and substance abuse to high-conflict family environments. A 2012 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that children exposed to inter-parental conflict also had lower self-esteem and an overall negative outlook on life.

There are even more troubling consequences.

Not only are children affected in their own lives, but studies show that bad relationship behaviour is passed on intergenerationally. The child mirrors the parent’s actions in adulthood, and the behaviour becomes cyclic. This warrants the need for intervention.

If the damage is lasting, what can be done?

Although cognitive damage cannot be reversed, there are positive steps families can take towards bettering their child’s well-being and future actions.

Research shows that children are astute observers of their parents’ behaviour, so arguing in “private” is not always as successful as parents perceive it to be. Rather, what’s important is that children should be taught that disagreements and arguments are normal. They should be aware of what types of discourse are considered volatile and unproductive. They should be taught how to interpret and understand the cause and effect of conflict. Respectful communication should replace angry confrontation.

Effective strategies for conflict resolution should be exercised by parents. Children will mirror this behaviour in the future when navigating their own emotions and relationships outside the family confines. If a fight takes place in front of a child, it should be discussed constructively with the child at a later time. Parents should work towards providing reassurance and closure to children after a conflict.

Reaching out to external support systems can be extremely beneficial as well. A therapist can help the child confront repressed emotions and develop positive emotional regulation or anger management skills.

Understanding why interparental conflict occurs is crucial to determine effective avenues for intervention. Overall, physiological, cognitive, and emotional processes that link couple conflict with family challenges can shape clinical interventions and future policy design. A holistic approach can help families experiencing these problems and rebuild functional relationships to set the stage for healthy children and families in future generations.

Written By: Rebecca Lena