It's no surprise that persistent conflict between parents can be emotionally damaging for kids. Kids are not oblivious to parental conflict. What’s more, they are vulnerable to the impact of that conflict, irrespective of whether conflicts are verbal, physical, or silent, and whether or not the conflicts are about them. Fighting in front of the kids can be damaging even for the youngest kids, and there’s evidence to support these claims.
According to a recently completed study, it’s not the divorce that damages kids, it’s the inter-parental conflict before divorce that does. The study used data from 19,000 kids born in the UK in 2000 and analyzed behavior, emotional development, and interactions with peers. The findings showed that kids who witnessed consistent fights at home were 30 percent more likely to develop behavior-related issues.
In a different study conducted by the Early Intervention Foundation and the University of Sussex, researchers found that parents embroiled in ongoing conflict were more likely to be aggressive towards their kids and less responsive to their needs.
Kids exposed to persistent conflict are at risk of multiple negative outcomes. They can either externalize their distress in the form of aggression, hostility, clinginess, antisocial behavior, delinquency, and violence, or internalize it in the form of poor emotion regulation skills, low self-esteem, anxiety, withdrawal, depression, and in extreme cases, suicidal tendencies. Kids in families with ongoing conflict also had trouble making and keeping friends.
Attempts to improve parenting skills in families where there was frequent, severe, and unresolved inter-parental conflict were unlikely to be successful in improving child outcomes if this conflict was not dealt with first.
A few studies suggest that as early as six months, kids are capable of displaying distress when their parents fight. Their distress is often displayed in the form of emotional reactions such as fear, anxiety, or sadness, and can lead to associated problems such as poor sleeping habits.
As they age, kids living in high-conflict families are likely to have trouble adapting to a formal school environment. Similar results were observed following a study conducted by researchers at the University of Oregon. This study found that infants have highly malleable brains and the environment in which they are raised has a great impact on their development.
The researchers analyzed the brain activity of 20 six to 12 month old infants while they were asleep. While the infants slept, a male spoke in tones ranging from very angry to neutral. The researchers found that even while asleep, emotional tones had an impact on the infants’ brain activities. They also found that brains of infants from high-conflict environments showed greater reactivity to the areas linked to stress and emotion regulation. Although additional research is required, the study suggests that early life stress may have an impact on kids’ abilities to regulate their emotions in later life.
That said, all researchers agree that relationships entirely free from conflict and disagreement do not exist. They also argue that the problem lies in how parents fight, rather than in whether or not they fight. So how do you fight the good fight?
When we avoid name calling and other forms of disrespect and relate to each other calmly and positively during a fight, we teach kids that conflict is normal but can be resolved in a calm manner.
According to one study, kids exposed to social conflict are more emotionally intelligent than those kept away from conflict situations. In other words, conflict can provide an opportunity to teach kids about emotions and also helps teach them to manage conflict appropriately.
It’s hard to be calm and objective when you get into an argument and you’re seeing red. You’ll react badly if you’re totally pissed off, so calm down first and then fight. Leave the room for a few minutes. Shift your attention to something completely unrelated. Take a few deep breaths. Do whatever works for you to calm down before you get into an argument.
Kids are the world’s greatest selective listeners. They won’t hear when you ask them to tidy up, but they’ll somehow be aware of even your most silent arguments. That’s when they start imagining all sorts of things, like how it’s their fault and how you’ll soon be splitting up.
Explaining the conflict to kids will help them learn that it’s not about them, and that conflict is a normal part of life. You don’t have to go into details but saying something like, “Your dad and I were mad at each other but we’ve talked and sorted it out,” can help them deal with the conflict better.
Talking about how you resolved the conflict also provides kids with an emotion regulation framework to help them deal with their emotions and with similar situations in future.
If you let your kids see you fight, they should also see how you make up. Let them see your hugs and smiles, and make sure they know everything is okay. Make up, but keep it real. Everyone will know when you’re faking it.
Persistent conflict between parents can have long lasting negative consequences on kids’ emotional, social, and academic outcomes. If you’re in a high-conflict relationship and have noticed behavioral problems with your kids, getting help through interventions that also take into account parental conflict can prove more effective than those that only focus on improving your parenting skills.
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