Parental Conflict

What is Parental Conflict?

It is normal for two parents to have different ideas, opinions, values, and priorities. Part of being successful in a relationship with another person is being able to use appropriate communication skills, so differences of opinion can be worked out using healthy conflict resolution strategies.

If parents do not communicate effectively with each other, it can result in chronic, unresolved conflict between them. The same patterns of angry confrontations are repeated over and over again with often no resolution or changes taking place.

This conflict can range from yelling, criticising, blaming, put-downs, mocking, sarcasm and ignoring, but poorly managed this can escalate to domestic abuse such as threats of harm, throwing or destroying things, and physical violence such as grabbing, shoving and hitting.

What can cause Parental Conflict?

At different times in a families’ life, parents can experience any number of life stressors, including; bereavement; a new baby; separation or divorce; financial difficulties; drug and alcohol issues; and mental health problems; all of which can lead to arguments relationship distress. If unresolved this conflict can become long term and unresolved. Many of these stress factors will have been heightened during the COVID-19 crisis. Below is a video about parental conflict.

Parental conflict and domestic abuse

When addressing parental conflict in a relationship, practitioners should continue to be vigilant and confident there are no indicators of domestic abuse, including coercive control and controlling behaviour. If there are signs of controlling behaviour that adversely affects one person in a relationship, this can be an indicator of an abusive relationship. To understand more about Domestic Abuse click here:

How is Parental Conflict Harmful to Children?

The wish of all children is that their parents do not argue or fight with each other. Unresolved, chronic conflict between parents, whether living together or separated, can have an extremely negative impact on the current and future mental health of their children.

  1. Negative Impact on Children’s Mental Health

Research indicates that children are generally very resilient and can usually cope with difficult situations such as separation and divorce. What does damage children is bitter, long-lasting, ongoing conflict between parents, whether the parents live together or not. This can lead to emotional and behavioural problems, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, low self-esteem, and problems at school.

  1. Children Feel Unsafe

Parental conflict creates tension, and unpredictability in the family environment that is meant to be safe and secure . Children feel anxious, and frightened. They may worry about their own safety and their parents’ safety even if there has been no actual or threatened violence.

  1. Children Worry About Taking Sides

Children worry that they have to take sides in the conflict. They generally want to please both parents but this becomes impossible and creates stress for children. Children become caught in the middle.

  1. Children Feel Guilty

Children often believe they are responsible for the fighting that goes on between their parents. This is especially true if children hear arguments related to different parenting styles, school issues, or financial issues related to them.

  1. Poor Role-Modelling for Children

Children learn lessons about how to get along with others from how their parents get along with each other. If parents only model unhealthy ways to communicate and resolve problems, most likely that is how their children will communicate and solve problems as they grow up

  1. Quality of Parenting Decrease

Parental conflict increases stress on parents, which can result in the decreased use of effective parenting skills over time, with a resulting negative impact on the children.

  1. Parent-Child Relationships May Suffer

Children need to be allowed to develop a relationship with both parents regardless of how the parents feel about each other. If a child constantly hears bad things about one parent from another parent, the parent-child relationship of the criticised parent may become damaged.

In the brief video below we can hear some children talking about their experiences of parental conflict and how it impacts on them.

How can we work with parents who are in conflict?

 Building an effective relationship with parents is essential to allow professionals to support and enable them to achieve change. Be professionally curious in your approach to try and identify what is happening in the relationship. Listen without making assumptions and try to avoid rushing in to “fix it” mode. Allow both parents to share their views and reflect on what has been said to check understanding.

Using basic motivational skills engages the parents and allows them time understand what their main difficulties are. The professional can then guide them towards an agreed goal.

There are a number of tools professionals can use to open up discussions with parents and allow exploration of issues. These include:

Relationship scale: With this tool we ask parents how they would rate their relationship on a sliding scale. This will often highlight differences in how both partners are feeling about their situation and this can be a useful starting point for conversations between them.

Thoughts Feeling and Behaviours: This is a well-used CBT tool. This model seeks to look at the relationship between the behaviour that we observe, the thoughts we have and feelings generated and how we react to this in terms of the behaviour we engage in.

You v I Statements: An “I” message or “I” statement is a style of communication that focusses on the feelings or beliefs of the speaker, rather than thoughts and characteristics that the speaker attributes to the listener. This allows the conversation to be less ‘blame’ and more ‘impact’.

For information on Reducing Parental Conflict training click on our courses page.

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