Info & Advice

How parental conflict affects children

Completely amicable, mutual agreed separations do occur, of course, but they are the exception rather than the rule. For most couples, the end of the relationship is triggered by some form of conflict, some disagreement, argument or falling-out. Perfectly normal and perhaps inevitable. It is how these disagreements are handled that makes all the difference. Outrage and acrimony will not only make the split a more stressful and unpleasant experience, it will leave lifelong scars on one group of particularly vulnerable bystanders: children.

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Children depend on their parents for many things. There are the physical fundamentals:  a home, food, clothes, medical care. But the intangibles are just as vital: a supportive environment, warmth, reassurance, safety. Visibly upset parents are very unsettling to children because their sense of security and normality comes directly from their carers.

A lasting legacy

The behaviour of parents or other caregivers could not be more central to the wellbeing of children. Faced with a parent who disparages the other as an outlet for their bitterness over the break-up, children often go out of their way to please them, even at the expense of their relationship with the absent father or mother.

Every child derives part of their sense of identity comes from their parents – both of them – so while they struggle to appease the present parent, they may feel that those angry words are directed on some level at them too.

Disputes between mothers and fathers that occur frequently and which are only partially or never resolved increase put their children at a higher risk of multiple poor life outcomes, even if the parents each manage to maintain a good individual relationship with the child.

According to multiple studies, parents at loggerheads put children at higher risk of:

  • Health problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Mental health challenges

Longer term problems can include a greater risk of depression and anxiety, struggles finding work, and difficulty forming romantic relationships.

Protecting the children

Given all the above, it behoves every responsible parent to work as hard as they can to protect their children from the parental conflict behind a divorce or separation. This means trying your best to avoid:

  • Arguing in front of them.
  • Criticising the other parent in conversations with your children, however frustrated you may feel with your former partner.

If these basic principles prove challenging, you may find mediation with your former partner helpful or gain valuable insights from time with a counsellor.

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