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Parents fighting in front of kids – what happens to your child

Having parents fighting is common. People fight. Parents fight. That’s the reality of life. They’re going to fight about a lot of things. From little things such as what television channel to watch, to important thing like whether they should have another child, the stakes can be high and parents’ emotions can run high.

Not all parents’ fights are terrible and need to be avoided. The way adults deal with these conflicts in front of their children can have different consequences for children.

How does parents fighting affect a child

In real life, conflict is a natural part of any relationship. When we live with kids, these conflicts will sometimes be brought up in front of your children. You may find yourselves wondering: Does parents fighting in front of the kids hurt the children in any way?

It is always upsetting and stressful to witness parents arguing. The good news is that not all types of conflicts will have adverse effects on children in the long run​1​.

Whether adults arguing will harm young kids depends on its frequency, intensity, context and the way it is resolved​2​.

Research shows that parents’ conflicts that can generate significant negative effects for children have the following characteristics:

shadows of parents fighting and girl sits on ground crying

1. They are frequent

It is always stressful for anyone to witness two people yelling at each other. But it’s even more distraught for little kids. Angry parents fighting on a regular basis can lead to greater distress in small children.

When a child is in distress, the level of stress hormone cortisol spikes. If the arguments only occur occasionally, the child’s hormonal level returns to normal soon after the episode. However, constant conflicts create frequent fluctuations in the cortisol levels and disrupt the cortisol patterns causing physical health problems such as brain shrinkage​3​, sleep disturbance​4​, and weakened immune system​5​.

Frequent conflicts are also associated with increased behavioral problems such as aggression and defiance, and conduct disorders in children like oppositional defiant disorder​6​. Children’s relationships with parents will also deteriorate as a result​7​.

Children who experience regular parental fighting are also more reactive. When confronted with conflict later, their reactions are more intense. These children are more prone to anxiety issue and withdrawal problems​8​.

Frequent fights also increases the child’s aggression with siblings and peers in school​9​.

2. They are intense & destructive

When parents fight intensely in front of their kids, the child picks up on the tension, negative emotions and perceived threat.

When a child is exposed to destructive tactics such as verbal aggression, physical violence or outlandish threats, their aggressive behavior also tend to increase​10​.

Emotional problems and mental health issues such as low self-esteem, depression, anger, and self-harm​11​ are more likely to occur in these children.

3. Child-related

The impact of arguing in front of the child also depends on how the child interprets the parental conflict​12​.

In case the conflict concerns the child, they may feel shamed and worried about being drawn into the fight. Fighting like this is not only upsetting, but also threatening to the child.

Conflict topics of this type also tend to elicit a higher level of aggression.

4. Poorly resolved

Poorly resolved family conflicts can have a negative impact on the marital relationships, parent-child relationship and family functioning​13​.

When an argument lacks a good explanation, or contains parent-blaming or child-blaming, the emotional damage to kids can be greater​14​.

A study shows that some children, especially boys, may blame themselves for the conflict​15,16​.

parents arguing boy sobbing

How to reduce the negative effects on children

Marital conflict is often the source of family stress and adjustment problems in children.

While people disagree, the conflict does not need to hurt the kids. Children do not have to be the collateral damage in a marriage discord.

These tips can help minimize the impact on your child’s mental health.

1) Avoid destructive conflicts

We don’t have to avoid all disagreements in front of children, and in reality, we can’t.

A resent study has actually found that marital conflict can be beneficial to development if that conflict is constructive. 

Destructive conflict behaviors include nonverbal anger, parent’s silent treatment, or parental withdrawal. These silent tactics upset children just as much​17​.

The best thing to do when open fights happen is to avoid using destructive strategies.

2) Model respectful disagreement

Not all arguments are bad if we disagree respectfully.

Let’s say two kids get into a fight, how do you want them to resolve it. Then do exactly that the next time you get into a heated argument with your partner.

Children learn from our behaviors. Hostile exchanges between parents unwittingly model aggressive behavior. They teach kids that being aggressive is the “grown-up way” to resolve conflicts.

Thus, keeping the exchanges respectful among family members will teach kids proper conflict resolution skills. Keeping the argument between the parents respectful will also prevent the levels of conflict from escalating.

3) Limit topics of disagreement

Not all topics of arguments are equally upsetting to kids.

According to research, disagreements over finances, economic issues, time management, and goal setting do not affect the child’s emotions, but disagreements over child rearing do.

Limit the kinds of conflicts so that child-related or difficult topic is only discussed behind closed doors.

4) Use constructive conflict behaviors

Constructive conflict behaviors have been linked to positive outcomes in children by improving the child’s security, positive emotions, sleep, academic achievement, social skills, problem solving skills, conflict resolution, stress coping and health-related outcomes​18,19​.

Constructive conflict behaviors include

  • Initiate affectionate contact rather than using aggression
  • Be respectful even when you disagree
  • Give constructive criticism instead of shame or blame
  • Use problem-solving to come to a solution, even a partial solution can help if it is constructive
  • Explain the situation to your child and do not blame them for the conflict
father son in therapy

5) Seek family therapy

Unresolved challenges to families can create risky family environments and serious problems for children.

For dysfunctional families that experience high levels of conflict, it is hard for parents to resolve the situation on their own. Professional help such as family therapy is one of the best ways to get your life back on track.

A professional therapist can help you find a better way to deal with high-conflict situations and avoid emotional distress. They can also help the entire family develop healthy relationships, anger management strategies and emotion regulation skills.


References

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    Lewis CE, Siegel JM, Lewis MA. Feeling bad: exploring sources of distress among pre-adolescent children. Am J Public Health. Published online February 1984:117-122. doi:10.2105/ajph.74.2.117
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    Fincham FD, Grych JH, Osborne LN. Does marital conflict cause child maladjustment? Directions and challenges for longitudinal research. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 1994:128-140. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.8.2.128
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    Pagliaccio D, Luby JL, Bogdan R, et al. Stress-System Genes and Life Stress Predict Cortisol Levels and Amygdala and Hippocampal Volumes in Children. Neuropsychopharmacol. Published online November 25, 2013:1245-1253. doi:10.1038/npp.2013.327
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    Hanson MD, Chen E. Daily stress, cortisol, and sleep: The moderating role of childhood psychosocial environments. Health Psychology. Published online 2010:394-402. doi:10.1037/a0019879
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    Johnson SB, Riley AW, Granger DA, Riis J. The Science of Early Life Toxic Stress for Pediatric Practice and Advocacy. PEDIATRICS. Published online January 21, 2013:319-327. doi:10.1542/peds.2012-0469
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    Jouriles EN, Pfiffner LJ, O’Leary SG. Marital conflict, parenting, and toddler conduct problems. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online April 1988:197-206. doi:10.1007/bf00913595
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    Long N, Forehand R, Fauber R, Brody GH. Self-perceived and independently observed competence of young adolescents as a function of parental marital conflict and recent divorce. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online March 1987:15-27. doi:10.1007/bf00916463
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    Cummings EM, Iannotti RJ, Zahn-Waxler C. Influence of conflict between adults on the emotions and aggression of young children. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1985:495-507. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.21.3.495
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    Cummings EM. Marital conflict and children’s functioning. Social Development. Published online March 1994:16-36. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.1994.tb00021.x
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    Byrne S, Morgan S, Fitzpatrick C, et al. Deliberate Self-harm in Children and Adolescents: A Qualitative Study Exploring the Needs of Parents and Carers. Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry. Published online October 2008:493-504. doi:10.1177/1359104508096765
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    Grych JH, Fincham FD. Children’s Appraisals of Marital Conflict: Initial Investigations of the Cognitive-Contextual Framework. Child Development. Published online February 1993:215. doi:10.2307/1131447
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    Goeke-Morey MC, Cummings EM, Papp LM. Children and marital conflict resolution: Implications for emotional security and adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2007:744-753. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.21.4.744
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    Cummings JS, Pellegrini DS, Notarius CI, Cummings EM. Children’s Responses to Angry Adult Behavior as a Function of Marital Distress and History of Interparent Hostility. Child Development. Published online October 1989:1035. doi:10.2307/1130777
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    Erath SA, Bierman KL. Aggressive marital conflict, maternal harsh punishment, and child aggressive-disruptive behavior: Evidence for direct and mediated relations. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2006:217-226. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.20.2.217
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    Dadds MR, Atkinson E, Turner C, Blums GJ, Lendich B. Family conflict and child adjustment: Evidence for a cognitive-contextual model of intergenerational transmission. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 1999:194-208. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.13.2.194
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    Cummings EM, Vogel D, Cummings JS, El-Sheikh M. Children’s Responses to Different Forms of Expression of Anger between Adults. Child Development. Published online December 1989:1392. doi:10.2307/1130929
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    Cummings EM, Goeke-morey MC, Papp LM. Children’s Responses to Everyday Marital Conflict Tactics in the Home. Child Development. Published online November 2003:1918-1929. doi:10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00646.x
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