The Impact of Parental Fights on Children

Often in the fight between parents, children are the losers. This article explores the dangerous impacts parental fights have on the mental wellness of the children.

By Divya Merciline A

The Impact of Parental Fights on Children

Six-year-old Ravi asked his school security guard, “I am scared to go back home, watchman uncle. Can I play in the school ground for some more time please?” At an age when most children love to get back home, what prompted Ravi to ask such a question? It definitely wasn’t because of scoring low marks or his teacher’s negative remarks. The fact was that he wanted to avoid being around his quarrelsome parents, listening to their non-stop arguments and watching the doors being slammed. But, were Ravi’s parents aware of the turmoil going on inside his young mind? 

Not just Ravi, there are many such children who live in a similar familial environment.

Parenting is a powerful skill. We develop this skill by various means such as modelling it on the parenting style of our own parents, from our experience of watching other parents, and information from other formal and informal sources.

Fight – An Outline:

Fighting is an impulse-driven activity, and is loaded with intense feelings and emotions. The human brain is wired such that we find it difficult to differentiate the right from the wrong during an aroused state. A similar situation arises when parents are engaged in a fight. While engaged in a fight, parents are unable to comprehend the impact their actions may have on their children. Most fights among parents are a result of failure to resolve conflicts and disagreements, or the lack of compatibility. Even parents who are intelligent, love each other, and appear well-adjusted ‘outside the home environment’ engage in fights. 

Is It That Important And Influential?

The human mind is sensitive to the interaction between caretakers, especially during infancy and early childhood. By engaging in a quarrel after showering their children with love and affection, parents end up sending contradictory information to them.

A healthy ‘child–parent’ relationship is vital for children’s mental health, but recent study by Liu, et al titled, 'Influence of inter-parental conflict on adolescent delinquency via school connectedness', published in Journal of Adolescence (2016) has also shown the importance of bonding between spouses to foster a sense of security in children. Overt family conflicts, frequent aggression, anger outbursts and impaired family relationships were found to have long-term damaging effects on the physical and mental health of children. These findings are supported by the study titled, 'Risky Families: Family Social Environments and the Mental and Physical Health of Offspring', by Rena, et al published in Psychological Bulletin (2002). 

Effects of Parents' Fight:

Parental fights could affect various aspects of children’s lives, including physical, emotional, psychological and social.

  • Children who witness conflicts within their family exhibit their psychological conflicts in the form of frequent physical complaints. These are the children who usually complain of, ‘Amma, my tummy hurts!’ The common complaints of such children include headache, muscle ache, stomach ache, cold and skin allergies, being underweight or overweight.
  • Most often, children acquire new information easily by watching others, especially their immediate role models; this is known as observational learning. But, this process of learning also has an adverse effect. For example, when parents fight in front of their child, the latter's behaviour becomes aggressive. Sometimes children hold themselves responsible for parental conflicts and feel guilty. Also, they often worry about taking sides, although their aim is to have peace at home.
  • When the intensity of argument increases, children develop feelings of insecurity and fear. As a result, they tend to stay alert most of the time, which prevents them from concentrating on school and peer activities. 
  • Children’s inability to deal with physical and verbal fights between parents manifests as emotional and behavioural indicators. Being argumentative, irritable, fragile, socially withdrawn, or vulnerable to abuse, frequent absenteeism, crying secretly, and truancy are some such indicators.
  • It has been proved that parental fight is psychologically destructive to children. Long-lasting parents' fights can result in low self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, stress, sleep and learning problems. 
  • The impact of divorce on children is even worse. The findings of a longitudinal research by Schiff, et al titled, 'Does adolescent's exposure to parental intimate partner conflict and violence predict psychological distress and substance use in young adulthood?', published in Child Abuse & Neglect (2014), revealed that children who witnessed parental fights were two to three times more likely to suffer from depression or abuse drugs by their 30th birthday. They also tend to have poor interpersonal relationships.

Tips To Handle Fights Constructively:

Here are some tips for parents to deal with their conflicts so that children aren’t affected.

Strict 'No-Nos'

Don’t ever resort to these:

  • Using the child as a messenger to deliver hostile information to the other parent
  • Demeaning the other parent or his family in front of the child
  • Forcing the child to take sides or calling the child as a witness to strengthen a parent’s case
  • Trying to forcefully change the child’s attitude about the other parent
  • Physical or verbal assault 

Protect: Guard children from being exposed to serious parental conflicts. Parental fights, especially physical assaults such as slapping, kicking or hitting, impact children irrespective of age. Thus, parents should not give children the opportunity to watch heated arguments. Remember, children know when parents are trying to fake the whole situation.

Avoid: There may be situations when one parent feels like shouting at the other. In such instances, it is better to leave the room or step away from the children’s hearing to deal with such uncontrollable emotions.

Reason out: It is okay for children to know the outline of what is happening between their parents. A gist that parents are at disagreement but are trying to sort it out can be given. The details given should be based on children’s age and grasping power, and should be brief and honest. This will help children understand that ‘it is common to have differences of opinion between two individuals’. Nevertheless, giving emotional content should be avoided. No way should the information given affect their sense of safety. It should be made clear to children that they are not responsible for the disagreement between parents. And, once the conflict is resolved, it is important to give children the follow-up information also. By doing this, parents can reassure children that love is eternal and also help develop a sense of belonging.

Resolving conflicts: Sometimes, parents in a conflicting relationship lean on their children for support. Instead of doing this, parents should prove to children that they are in control of the situation. Children are too ‘young’ to support parents in such situations.

Also, after a conflict between parents, children should be provided with enough evidence to prove that their parents are fine, and they are living in a normal family environment. Children are too delicate to come out of distress quickly.

Sometimes parents might find it difficult to resolve their conflicts. In such cases, they can take help from professionals and ensure peace at home. For, a negative home environment will affect the emotional status of children.

Consider family as the solution to all the problems rather than a place to have only arguments. Being open to the ultimate objective of the relationship has the power to resolve any conflicts.

In short, quarrels are unavoidable in any family. But, being able to deal with conflicts in a productive way and ensuring that they do not impact children contributes towards the mental health of those tender minds. 

The author is a lecturer and consultant clinical psychologist at the Department of Clinical Psychology, Sri Ramachandra University, Chennai.

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