The Impact of Parental Conflict on Children Through a Developmental Lens

All couples fight. That’s a given. However, the impact parental conflict has on children can range from mild to devastating depending on the frequency and intensity of the parental discord, as well as many other factors including the age and stage of the child involved.

As a psychologist who frequently works with couples and families, I am very much a proponent of family therapy. Family therapy has it’s roots in family systems theory, which suggests that each member of a family cannot be understood in isolation from others belonging to that family unit. Through this theoretical lens, we understand that if high conflict exists between two family members, other family members will likely also be impacted by that conflict. When we overlay this systemic approach with a developmental perspective, we can begin to understand how high levels of marital and family conflict, and in more extreme circumstances, family and domestic violence, can affect the development and well-being of children from infancy and toddlerhood through to adolescence and beyond.

In the toddler years, frequent exposure to high levels of conflict and violence can result in irritability, regression in language and toileting (Osofsky, 1999), sleep disturbances, fear of being alone (Lundy & Grossman, 2005), and difficulty separating from parents, possibly due to poor parent-child attachments. Research has shown that this can have dire consequences long-term, with intergenerational cycles of domestic violence sometimes being set in motion (Zeanah et al., 1999).

Pre-schoolers are inherently dependent on their parents and may therefore experience higher levels of exposure to conflict or violence which can result in behavioural issues, social problems, PTSD symptoms and even challenges in developing empathy (Rossman, 1998; Huth-Bocks, Levendosky, and Semel, 2001). Because pre-schoolers have yet to develop the verbal ability to express themselves, young children exposed to conflict or violence can instead display their pain through temper tantrums, aggression, resisting comfort, or despondency and anxiety (Cunningham & Baker, 2004). Many of these behavioural responses can also result in psychosomatic manifestations including headaches, stomach aches, asthma, insomnia, nightmares, sleepwalking and enuresis (Martin, 2002).

Primary age children are often aware of how abuse affects their mother (Daniel, Wassell & Gilligan, 1999). This age group can be quick to blame themselves and seek to justify the abusive parent’s behaviour based on alcohol or stress, or even as a result of the “bad” behaviour exhibited by themselves or their victim parent. Many children of this age attempt keep the conflict or violence a secret, which can further compound vulnerability. These children can experience higher risks of being bullied (Baurer & all, 2006), or can become aggressive, suffer from peer difficulties, and depression (Lundy & Grossman, 2005).

Parental conflict and violence can leave a negative legacy on older offspring as they may struggle to form healthy relationships with peers and partners due to the templates they have been exposed to during their teen years. These adolescents can develop low levels of trust, with some researchers speculating that male offspring may repeat violent behaviour patterns and female offspring may become victims in their own adult relationships (Levendosky and her colleagues, 2002).

Together the research is clear. Parental conflict and violence adversely impacts children with no age or stage immune to the effects that toxic words, loaded withdrawal, or physical blows have on the emotional and psychological well-being of our young people. Of course, all couples experience conflict, but conflict can be managed, and we can all learn to choose more adaptive responses. I can’t think of a better gift to choose for our children, their children, and the generations to come.

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