Inter-parental conflict

Inter-parental conflict

Thanks to the persistence of campaigns that highlight the importance of mental health, speaking out about and looking for ways to optimize it are to be positively encouraged.  

During last year’s Mental Health Week, mental health was described as being akin to ‘mental fitness’ and to be equally as important to a person’s wellbeing as their physical fitness. 

A person’s mental fitness can be vulnerable in the lead up to, during and in the period following separation from a partner.  This is only to be expected – there are a host of life-changing adjustments required to successfully transition to life in two households and no doubt while trying hard to remain present, well and strong to support children.  

There’s no manual for being a good parent: the overwhelming majority of us strive to do the best for our children at all times.  We know that, following separation, conflict between parents can impact their ability to parent with an optimum level of mental fitness.  If conflict becomes long-term or chronic, we know there is a good chance it can impact children’s feelings of wellbeing. 

Conflict affects us in all areas of our lives: within families, friendship groups, professionally and politically.  It stands to reason that children benefit from experiencing conflict during childhood, in order to equip them with the skills they need to address, manage and resolve it respectfully and appropriately as they in turn encounter it in their own lives.  In this respect, parents serve very much as primary role-models to their children.  By working together, they can model to children that even in difficult circumstances, constructive solutions are achievable, manageable and worthwhile.

In the same way as their parents, a child’s mental fitness is likely to be tested if chronic conflict is present following their parents’ separation – known as “chronic inter-parental conflict”1.

So how you help and support our children?  We know that:

  • Children’s reactions to traumatic events such as parents separating or their parents’ ongoing conflict is affected by a combination of nature and nurture.  Parental support and role-modelling is an integral part of optimizing your child’s mental health and wellbeing during your separation and beyond2.
  • For some children in particular, negative experiences of inter-parental conflict affect them acutely, whereas constructive modelling of parental conflict resolution may positively enhance their resilience and lifelong outcomes.  In other words, how parents tackle conflict between them can contribute directly to how a child fairs throughout his or her entire lifespan3

There are now several decades of research findings available to help guide and steer parents and the professionals supporting them when it comes to (1) understanding the effects of inter-parental conflict and (2) considering how parents can work together to minimise parental conflict and improve their children’s outcomes.

Here are some of the headlines:

Resolve conflict Constructively

Traditionally, research about children and the impact of parental conflict has tended to focus on their parents’ actual separation as the central traumatic and impacting event.  More recent research indicates that what affects children to a greater extent is the parental conflict they experience prior to and following their parents’ separation, particularly if the conflict is chronic and poorly resolved4.  

If conflict is resolved constructively, you may have compromised, partially compromised, apologised or perhaps agreed to disagree with one another. This contrasts with conflict that is more destructive in nature, in which children are conscious of conflict between you that remains unresolved, may erupt, or for which you give one another the silent treatment. All forms of destructive conflict, including ignoring one another or leaving things unresolved, have been shown to affect children’s wellbeing.

Looking after your own Health

Looking after yourself is really important.  If you are not feeling mentally well and able to parent, that in turn may impact your children5.   Do not be afraid to seek professional help.  It is perfectly normal to feel affected when you separate from your child’s other parent, particularly if parenting in partnership proves difficult.   Access the right individual and parenting relationship help so that you can be present and available to support yourself and your children. Your investment now can pay dividends in the short and long term.

Family and friends can be a great source of support and comfort to you.  Be mindful though that close friends and family know only one side of the story and are not necessarily able to see things objectively.  On occasion, supporters of just one parent – sometimes known as cheerleaders – drive you in a direction that is unhelpful, causing extra layers of conflict and tension.  It is helpful to seek support from a friend or professional who is able to be impartial and objective. 

As already mentioned, some conflict is okay – it is inevitable, and it is good for children to experience it and see how adults work together to overcome or resolve it constructively.  The negative effects arise when it becomes chronic and unmanageable. One study by Sherrill, Lochman, DeCoster, & Stromeyer showed that, when a couple is stuck in conflict, and distressed and hostile as a consequence, there is more likelihood that they will be less able to be sensitive or emotionally responsive to their children’s needs6.

Parental conflict Impacts children

Although it makes uncomfortable reading, the research tells us that the effects of parental conflict on children can be noted in many ways, including sleep problems, externalizing and internalizing of problems (such as anger, truanting, depression or loss of self-esteem), academic problems, social and interpersonal problems, physical health problems, and by affecting future intimate partner and relationship quality7

Acting proactively to manage parental conflict has been shown:

  • to protect against a decline in a child’s mental fitness
  • to reduce the need for multiple future court applications
  • to help maintain a positive relationship for a child with both parents, which ultimately means better feelings of security and mental fitness for a child for his or her lifetime. 

How can reducing negative conflict help children?  In some important research by Dr. Robert Emery Ph.D and colleagues, which he describes as “…surely the most important study I have ever done…” he studied 71 families.  They were families who had applied to the court for what was known in the US as a contested child custody hearing. Completely randomly, he assigned the families either to continue through their court proceedings, or first to try mediation, which was an emerging idea at the time of the study.  The average time the mediation group spent in mediation was only six hours. The study found that families who had engaged in mediation benefited as follows: 

  • both parents were more involved in their children’s lives twelve years later
  • three times as many parents as the group who had relied on the court applications still saw their children every week
  • five times as many parents as the group who had relied on court applications spoke on the telephone to their other parent every week
  • caused parents to get on better with one another and to rate one another as better parents twelve years after they had participated in the mediation8.

Subsequent studies in England and elsewhere are consistent with these findings.

Children deserve to be at liberty to Love both their parents

Naturally, children love and identify with both parents.  This should be encouraged.

Children who feel ultimately as though they are in a loyalty bind, or can’t express themselves honestly, can be compromised in terms of their own feelings of well-being both now and throughout their lives. 

Conflict comes in Different forms

As mentioned above, negative conflict takes many forms – from ignoring one another, though the full spectrum of verbal disagreements, domestic abuse, controlling and coercive behaviour and physical violence.  All types of unresolved chronic parental conflict can be emotionally harmful to children9. Being proactive and finding professional support to facilitate managed and constructive communication will help both parents to feel heard, giving them a better chance of reaching mutually acceptable decisions that will stand the test of time.

Be a Role model

Children look up to both their parents as role models10.   They respond best when parents can act appropriately as role models for them, and this includes how they interact with one another. 

Overall, children respond well to parents who are authoritative and supportive, rather than authoritarian or permissive in nature.  If parents can work together to offer consistent boundaries on key parenting issues across both households, children will know best where they stand, all of which can bring them feelings of safety and security.

Children also benefit from positive role models who exist in their wider family, such as grandparents, from close friends or perhaps a supportive teacher or sports coach.  These role models can make positive contributions to a child, his or her sense of self and personal development, and provide some consistency for children in times of change. Maintaining relationships with these role models can be stabilizing and a positive enhancement for children11.

Each parent is important to a child for his or her sense of identity

Children identify with different parents in connection with different parental attributes and styles, and at different stages of their development.  Having a good relationship with both parents enhances a child’s sense of self and gives a child more opportunity to develop their own independent characteristics.  Who children need or relate to most naturally at aged 5, for example, may change when they get a little older, and then again at different periods. This happens whether parents live in the same home, or separately.

Children see their parents as a part of themselves and their own identity.  If one parent is derogatory about the other, a child receives the criticism personally and this can affect his or her confidence and self-esteem12.   Conversely, positive comments about a child’s other parent can buoy a child, reinforce his or her sense of identity and boost his or her confidence. 

Remind your child it is Not their fault

Children worry in particular if they feel the conflict is about them or if they feel they have caused it.  Reassuring children that this isn’t a case goes a long way towards enhancing feelings of wellbeing. Children should not be brought into the conflict by asking them what the other parent is doing, for example, or to pass messages between their parents13.

Parenting coordination gives parents the time, space and support to discuss and reflect on how they want their children’s future to be shaped – in a sense a fork in the road.  It is possible to continue to tread the path of conflict, or, with the assistance of a parenting coordinator, to confront the conflict and try to tread a new and more constructive path.

  1. See, for example, “What works to enhance interparental relationships and improve outcomes for children?” – Early Intervention Foundation
  2. Harold, G.T, Sellers, R (2018).  Annual Research Review: Interparental conflict and youth psychopathology: an evidence review and practice focused update. Journal of Child Psychology 54, 20
  3. Harold, G.T, Sellers, R (2018).  Annual Research Review: Interparental conflict and youth psychopathology: an evidence review and practice focused update. Journal of Child Psychology 54, 17
  4. See, for example, “What works to enhance interparental relationships and improve outcomes for children?” – Early Intervention Foundation
  5. Susan Blyth Boyan, M. Ed., L.M.F.T, Ann Marie Termini, M.S., L.P.C, Cooperative Parenting and Divorce “Shielding your Child From Conflict – A Parent Guide to Effective Co-Parenting.” (1999) Active Parent Publishing, at page 6
  6. Harold, G.T, Sellers, R (2018).  Annual Research Review: Interparental conflict and youth psychopathology: an evidence review and practice focused update. Journal of Child Psychology 54, 7
  7. Harold, G.T, Sellers, R (2018).  Annual Research Review: Interparental conflict and youth psychopathology: an evidence review and practice focused update. Journal of Child Psychology 54, 17
  8. Emery, R.E Ph.D., Two Homes One Childhood, A Parenting Plan to Last a Lifetime, 2016, page 49 (referring to Emery, R.E, & Wyer, M.M. (1987).  Child custody mediation and litigation: An experimental evaluation of the experience of parents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 179-186; and Emery, R.E., Matthews, S., & Wyer, M.M (1991).  Child Custody mediation and litigation: Further evidence of the differing views of mothers and fathers. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59, 410-418 and finally, Emery, R.E., Laumann-Billings, L., Waldron, M., Sbarra, D.A., & Dillon, P. (2001).  Child Custody mediation and litigation: Custody, contact and co-parenting 12 years after initial dispute resolution. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 323-332
  9. Harold, G.T, Sellers, R (2018).  Annual Research Review: Interparental conflict and youth psychopathology: an evidence review and practice focused update. Journal of Child Psychology 54, 44
  10. Susan Blyth Boyan, M. Ed., L.M.F.T, Ann Marie Termini, M.S., L.P.C, Cooperative Parenting and Divorce “Shielding your Child From Conflict – A Parent Guide to Effective Co-Parenting.” (1999) Active Parent Publishing, at page 9
  11. Harold, G.T, Sellers, R (2018).  Annual Research Review: Interparental conflict and youth psychopathology: an evidence review and practice focused update. Journal of Child Psychology 54, 27
  12. Susan Blyth Boyan, M. Ed., L.M.F.T, Ann Marie Termini, M.S., L.P.C, Cooperative Parenting and Divorce “Shielding your Child From Conflict – A Parent Guide to Effective Co-Parenting.” (1999) Active Parent Publishing, at page 7
  13.  Harold, G.T, Sellers, R (2018).  Annual Research Review: Interparental conflict and youth psychopathology: an evidence review and practice focused update. Journal of Child Psychology 54, 12 and 36