What is conflict?
Conflict can range from small family disagreements to arguments to physical fights. Conflict can also look like uncomfortable silence, anger and hostility.
Sometimes you can solve problems that lead to conflict quickly. At other times, it can be hard to work out solutions.
Conflict in family life
Conflict happens in families – it’s normal.
The way it affects children depends on how intense the conflict is, how often it happens, and how you sort it out.
Constructive conflict management is important – for your children, your relationship and the wellbeing of your entire family.
When conflict is useful
Children aren’t born knowing how to handle conflict, so occasional arguments probably won’t harm them if you handle the arguments well.
In fact, seeing you work together on conflict management teaches your children valuable skills. For example, by working together to sort out differences, you show your children how to negotiate and solve problems effectively. This also teaches children that difference and conflict are a part of life.
It can also be reassuring for your children when you show optimism that you can work out a problem, and when you explain how you sorted out a disagreement.
When conflict is a problem
Conflict is a problem when parents fight a lot and don’t resolve their differences. Unhealthy conflict affects children badly, whether parents are together or separated.
The more parents argue, the more it affects children. Severe and frequent conflict can lead to a higher risk of emotional, behaviour and social problems. Children are more likely to be disobedient and to experience problems such as depression, aggression or poor performance at school.
Conflict can be particularly harmful if it involves abuse, threats or disputes about a child in front of the child. Physical violence, such as pushing or hitting between couples, can be even more harmful for children. Children who grow up seeing physical violence are more likely to have personal and social problems as adults.
Conflict management tips
Keep it to yourselves
- Avoid arguing in front of your children.
- Save heated discussions for behind closed doors.
- Make a time to discuss problems when the children aren’t with you – for example, after children’s bedtime, or when they’re at school or visiting grandparents.
Let children see you sorting things out constructively
- Take turns talking.
- Be polite.
- Try to understand your partner’s feelings or perspective. You don’t have to agree, but you can try to understand where your partner is coming from.
- Share your feelings with your partner.
- Try to hear the positive in your partner’s message.
- Brainstorm possible solutions.
Keep a good relationship with your children
- Even when you’re having problems with your partner, focus on a positive relationship with your children.
- Do things with your children that they enjoy.
- Tell them when they do things you like.
- Give them a hug – be affectionate.
- Talk with your children about things that interest them and what they’re doing and feeling.
- Whenever you can, stop what you’re doing so you can help, listen or talk to your children.
Let your children know they’re not the problem
- Tell your children that the issues aren’t about them and that the grown-ups are sorting it out.
- Let your children know that you’re trying to find a solution to the problem.
- Continue to spend positive time with your children – remind them that you love them.
- Encourage your partner to keep a positive relationship with your children.
- Don’t feel you have to tell your children what the issue is. Some problems are for grown-up ears only.
How children are affected by parental conflict
Some children cope better with conflict than others. Factors such as temperament and age make a difference. So does the type and frequency of the conflict.
Younger children are more likely to show that they’re upset. They might show stress by throwing tantrums or behaving in difficult ways.
Older children might experience problems such as depression, worries and low self-esteem or confidence.
Gender might play a part in how children cope with conflict. Boys are more likely to feel threatened by their parents’ arguments. Boys might respond by acting up, becoming disobedient or aggressive. Girls tend to blame themselves and become withdrawn.