Regardless of family dynamics, conflict often rears its heads. Within a family, each person has their own viewpoints, perceptions, beliefs, and opinions yearning to be voiced and heard. Conflict occurs when these differences are not communicated in a healthy mature way. Ongoing conflict persists as the conflict remains unresolved or participants have poor communication skills. Either way, the impact of ongoing parental conflict on a child’s psychological development can be significant.
Conflict and your child
According to Grych and Fincham, the way a child perceives family relationships, specifically that of their parents, can either buffer stress or agitate it. They continue to expand on the impact a child’s temperament has on their view of family relationships. A child’s temperament can affect how they respond to stress, how they cope with that stress and their relationship with their parent. (Grych and Fincham)
As a child witnesses the ongoing conflict between their parents, they will begin to build a grid or expectation of how each conflict will develop. This in turn will affect their response to that conflict as well as the impact chronic conflict will have on their emotional development.
A child’s emotional stability and security during ongoing conflict play a significant role in their future emotional development. According to Barthassat, children who have negative emotions struggle to cope with the stress that they experience from the ongoing conflict which in turn gives a child a negative viewpoint on the family conflict. (Barthassat)
As conflict remains unresolved and threatens a child’s emotional security, the more they will experience a need to intervene. At this point a child may begin to want to choose sides, blame themselves for the ongoing conflict, or take on responsibilities that are inappropriate for their age. (Barthassat)
With continuous unresolved conflict, a child begins to struggle regulating their emotions, experiences an increase in negative emotions, and finally their adjustment capacity begins to falter leading to adjustment problems. (Barthassat)
As the conflict between parents continues, a child is exposed to a variety of stressors. This child watches as the people they identify with the most struggle to work through their differences. Parents find themselves often with less patience, harsher parenting practices, and a decreased show of affirmation and encouragement. (Hardy-Williams 2016)
A child becomes acutely aware of the tension in the home and their parents’ withdrawal towards the entire family. In a common scenario, a child may find themselves being blamed, scapegoated, or confided in. (Hardy-Williams 2016) The uncertainty of where the family stands rises. The child wonders if the conflict is their fault thus, they begin to carry the weight of their world on their shoulders.
Depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, and responsibility weigh the child down. Other effects of ongoing conflict for children include aggressiveness, worry, and hopelessness. According to Divecha, children raised in environments of destructive conflict have difficulty forming healthy balanced relationships with others. Their relationships with their siblings can result in a child’s over-involvement or over protection; or withdrawal and the start of estrangement can occur.
In the midst of conflict, constructive outcomes can occur, provided that the parents are able to compromise and resolve it. In the face of a mild or moderate conflict which is resolved, even partially, children acquire better social skills, improved self-esteem, emotional security, improved relationships with parents (Divecha 2014).
Children learn from their parents that conflict occurs and can be worked out while preserving relationships. This gives children hope. It models for them a healthy holistic approach to conflict and personal relationships.
The impact of stonewalling as a form of conflict
According to Divecha, researchers have conducted studies that show parental withdrawal as more detrimental to children than open conflict. Unlike open conflict, children do not know what is happening; they have nothing to work with. In moments of withdrawal, all children understand is that something is wrong.
Divecha continued saying that researchers recommend that parents should avoid pretending conflict has been resolved since children will discern the truth. Rather, go behind closed doors and come out neutral or positive. This will affirm to children that a resolution has been reached.
Effective resolution to parental conflict
Resolving conflict is helpful to all family relationships and members.Taking the time to calmly compose yourself will further help you work with your partner towards an amicable solution. Here are a few tips to guide you towards resolved conflict.
When it comes to resolving conflict, healthy communication skills can turn a conflict situation into an opportunity for growth, teamwork and understanding. Listen attentively to the other family member, empathize with their emotions and viewpoints (this does not mean you agree but that you see the situation from their perspective), work together to find a solution that will work for your family (you are a team), and finally extend kindness and respect throughout your communication with each other.
Talk to your child
Children need to know what is happening between their parents. Talk to your child in an honest, brief and reassuring manner. They don’t need to know the details since children should not become a confidante to their parents. Be sure to reassure your child of your love towards them.
While you are talking to your child, help them to not blame themselves, take on guilt or feel responsible for the family conflict. Take ownership of the conflict. Family conflict is usually due to external stressors, inappropriate coping skills and is not a child’s fault. Children need to know this.
While talking to your child about the conflict within the family, speak positively about the other family members in front of your child. As much as possible, communicate with your child in a mature, respectful and loving way towards them and about those involved in the conflict.
Protect your child
Be aware of the impact conflict has on your child. Conduct yourself with as much self-control and dignity as possible within those moments of conflict. If need be, go for a walk to cool down before speaking to your child’s other parent. Children do need to know that conflict happens and can be resolved. Let them know when you have resolved family conflict.
Encourage your child to not take sides between you and their other parent. Allow them the freedom to love you both and have a relationship with both of you.
Seek professional help
Sometimes professional help can be invaluable to helping families through family conflict. Besides being a source of support, professional help can equip families with the necessary communication tools, parenting skills, and counselling to empower the family towards health and wholeness.
Barthassat, Joëlle. Positive and Negative effects of Parental Conflicts on Children’s Condition and Behaviour. EFPSA – Journal of European psychology students <http://jeps.efpsa.org/articles/10.5334/jeps.bm/>
Gilmour, Glenn A. 2004. High-Conflict Separation and Divorce: Options for Consideration. Department of Justice Canada. http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/fl-lf/divorce/2004_1/p3.html
Eugster, Kathy. 2007. Chronic Parental Conflict: How it Can Be Harmful for Children http://www.kathyeugster.com/articles/article002.htm
Grych, J. H. and Fincham, F. D. (1990). Marital conflict and children’s adjustment: A cognitive-contextual framework. Psychological Bulletin 108(2): 267–290, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037//0033-2909.108.2.267
Divecha, Diana. 2014 What Happens to Children When Parents Fight. Developmental Science http://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2014/04/30/what-happens-to-children-when-parents-fight