Low-level, poorly resolved conflict between parents – bickering, giving the cold shoulder, eye-rolling – can seem inconsequential. It isn’t physical violence, after all. But it is a feature in many families. And such behavior may help explain enduring mental health problems for many children, including depression, anxiety, poor sleep, and aggressive behavior.
Reducing this type of chronic interparental conflict and tension helps children feel the emotional security they need for robust mental health – not only when they are young but also as adults.
Most people recognize that engaging in yelling matches, throwing things, and acting in ways that are physically aggressive are unhealthy conflict behaviors that can harm children’s development. However, the wider issue is more subtle. It’s about how parents tackle commonplace, sometimes tiny disagreements that all couples can expect to have – conflicts that are natural, inevitable occurrences in any intimate relationship.
A disagreement might be about politics. It might be about who folds the laundry. Many parents don’t see eye to eye on issues related to work-life balance – they may argue about who is spending enough time on child care. A couple from one of our studies was adamant that they had never had a conflict in 27 years of marriage. Eventually, they acknowledged that for nearly three decades, they had disagreed about whether the peanut butter should be kept in the pantry or the refrigerator.
“It’s about how parents tackle commonplace, sometimes tiny disagreements that are natural, inevitable occurrences in any intimate relationship.”
Smoldering battles lead to hypervigilance
How parents tackle such apparently minor (and major) differences matters to children’s mental health. Some couples focus their attention not on collaborating or solving the problem, but on insults, verbal anger, or non-verbal expressions of anger. Friction can be caused by one parent pursuing the dispute through continual nagging and the other parent withdrawing. Small conflicts may remain unresolved for lengthy periods, festering, creating tension, and harming children’s mental health.
Damage is done not by a single or even a few instances, but by chronic interactions of these kinds. They compound and accumulate, stacking up and eroding relationships. Early thinking suggested that if parents bickered a lot, children would get used to it and become desensitized. But studies since the 1980s have demonstrated the opposite: Amid chronic marital conflict, children may become increasingly sensitive to the episodes. They can become hypervigilant, tracking signs for a conflict breaking out. This can make them prone to spotting conflict where there is none or where the typical person might ignore what’s going on. Such focus can be exhausting emotionally for a child.
It is a mistake to believe that children are unaware when parental battles happen behind closed doors. Children are highly tuned to their families’ emotional climate. They can tell if there is tension; they don’t have to witness it. They also recognize when conflict has been resolved, even if they haven’t witnessed the resolution.
Constructive conflict can benefit children
In contrast, children’s mental health can benefit when parents behave constructively around their conflicts. When parents have differences, they can talk calmly together and focus on solving the problem. Perhaps they touch each other gently while talking, maybe even use kindly humor with one another. This might even have a boosting effect on children – they see that their parents can work out differences so they feel that their family is safe and secure. The children don’t need to worry that their family system will be disrupted. They can expend their energies elsewhere.
We should take seriously the risks posed by widespread, poor resolution of disputes among parents. Most children are exposed to parental disagreement on almost a daily basis: Poorly resolved parental conflict is an important factor in mental health outcomes. Family history of the home environment is a robust predictor of good and bad outcomes.
Children feel emotionally insecure
The wide range of mental health outcomes associated with interparental conflict suggests that several mechanisms may be involved. One pathway relates to children’s sense of emotional security: They need to feel that their family system is safe and secure.
Destructive, unresolved interparental conflict can make children uneasy about the strength of the emotional bonds that are vital for their survival. As a result, children might act out to stop the conflict, or withdraw into themselves and into negative feelings to avoid such threats. In the short run, such strategies can help children manage life with their parents, but in the longer term, these types of learned behaviors – applied to other situations, such as at school or with friends – aren’t good for them or those around them.
“Children are highly tuned into their families’ emotional climate. They can tell if there is tension; they don’t have to witness it.”
Children may blame themselves for conflict
Another pathway involves the thoughts children may have during interparental conflicts. Some children blame themselves, thinking: “I’ve made Mom and Dad fight. I’m responsible.” These feelings of self-blame can fester and break down children’s self-worth. Children who cannot stop their parents’ fighting may feel they have failed, which can lead to depression.
The implications of poorly managed parental conflict do not stop there. This type of conflict is correlated with parental depression and the quality of the parent-child relationship. Some parents imagine they can compartmentalize conflict with their partner. However, if you are angry with your spouse, you may unintentionally take it out on your children, snapping at them and parenting in a harsher manner. Or you may feel exhausted and withdraw, lacking the energy to engage with your children in a meaningful way. There may also be “compensatory” spillover, where a parent turns to a child for comfort, placing undue pressure on the child to make up for the loss of an unfulfilling relationship with the partner.
Damage may endure into adulthood
Research suggests that these mental health impacts of mishandled interparental conflict can often endure into adulthood: Even after children have become adults and left home, the quality of their parents’ relationship can still affect their mental health and well-being. This might be partly because couples can get stuck for years in a negative way of interacting, exposing their children to chronic interparental conflict throughout development. Additionally, children may model their parents’ pattern of interaction in their own relationships, which may further damage their mental health.
It’s never too late for parents to change
There are ways to prevent these injurious impacts. Smaller studies have shown that interventions with parents can lead them to handle conflicts more constructively, encouraging them to solve problems together and speak kindly to each other. These interventions have led to short-term improvements in children’s mental well-being. Interventions to support parents’ mental health and develop positive parenting also make a difference. Important relationships with peers, other adults, or a sibling also buffer the impact on children of interparental conflict. Policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have important work to do to translate this decades-long research into large-scale interventions needed to bolster millions of families affected by this phenomenon.
For parents who get stuck in poor ways of managing conflict, it’s never too late to try healthier ways of tackling differences. But it’s best to start early, before children are exposed. Otherwise, the occasional negative interactions may gradually become so much the norm that nobody realizes what’s happened to a once-loving couple relationship – or to the children.
Header photo: Unsplash.