For Parents

The effect of parental conflict on children
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We all experience the world differently, especially adults and children. You and your children perceive the world differently, but to what extent are you really aware of this?

What do we know about the effect of parental conflict on children? Unfortunately, very little. From what we already know, we can tell that conflict and unrest in the family lead to children crying more often and becoming aggressive and disobedient. Growing up in a family where parents constantly shout and fight has a negative impact on the child. However, we have to take a closer look to get a more accurate picture.

For example, how can we explain an unhappy and petulant child being a part of a family that appears to be ‘respectable’ or even exemplary? At first glance, this may lead us to look at influences from school, from the street or from genetics and to conclude that therein must lie the problem. However, upon closer inspection we can see that the core of the matter is closely linked to the family itself. It can easily be the case that the parents of ‘exemplary’ families in reality cannot stand each other, but put up with each other for practicality’s sake.

Some parents believe that in order to ensure the well-being of their child, they should do everything in their power to keep the family together. Ruling out divorce as an option is one of the most common mistakes made in the process. Whilst children in divorced families display an increasingly neurotic and agitated behaviour, it would be far from the truth to conclude, in theory and in practice, that divorce is the only root of the problem. The fact of the matter is that fighting and frequent disagreements between parents have a far more harmful effect on a child, than divorce or a new life with a single parent.

It should also be noted that any negative feelings that parents have against each other often end up being directed at children instead, who become a sort of ‘scapegoat’. The reason behind this is that direct confrontation is likely to lead to a violent conflict with broken dishes, swearing, slamming doors and so on; a fact that the parents themselves are often aware of. This is why they often direct their negative emotions towards the children, who are often unable to retaliate and can be always be reproached for simple things like leaving their shoes in the wrong place, getting soup on their shirt, or even for having a certain look on their face.

Children can feel when their parents are unhappy and gradually, they start to feel unworthy or develop a defence mechanism. In the first scenario, children become withdrawn and reserved. In the second scenario, children see a good offence as the best defence. Figuratively speaking, they ‘grow claws’ and ‘start to bite’, fight and behave aggressively.

This does not however mean that if both parents are unhappy with the marriage, they need to get a divorce as quickly as possible. Divorce may be the simplest, but it definitely is not the best option. First of all, breaking up the family is traumatic not only for the husband and wife, but for the child also. Secondly, unhappiness and irritation does not disappear after divorce. On the contrary, the weight of loneliness intensifies the feeling and the child is usually the one who get hurts again as a result. This is why it is very important for parents to think seriously and engage all their personal resources before a divorce.

In a family, it is practically impossible for a conflict, or for one person’s spoilt mood, to only affect those directly involved. It’s well known that even new-borns can get nervous if they feel that their mother is anxious for whatever reason. Toddlers who cannot speak or interpret facial expressions can detect their mother’s emotional state. Children may not be able to work out why their parents are fighting, but they will definitely feel a psychological discomfort and subconsciously look for ways to release their emotional tension.

When some children get ill, all of a sudden they realise that when they’re sick in bed, their parents momentarily forget about their conflict. They become united by caring for and paying attention to the child. In other words, illness becomes something desirable and ‘beneficial’.

Afterwards, by getting ill, they subconsciously try to recover that pleasant feeling of unity. Of course, it’s impossible to get a flu or a pneumonia just by wishing for them. Illnesses which are developed as a tool to unite parents are linked to the subconscious, and are consequently related to psychological factors. There are quite a few illnesses like these (not to mention the psychological problems which are caused directly as a result of parental conflict such as logoneurosis, depression, anxiety disorders and so on). For example, children could ‘develop’ asthmatic bronchitis as a way of getting care and attention from their parents.

It is clear that a child goes through this to stop parental conflict. This behaviour helps them normalise the psychological atmosphere in their house. Of course, such methods are not pleasant or healthy for the child or for those around them, but the child cannot find an alternative way to solve their parents’ conflict.

How can we help children like these? By getting parents to sort out their relationship themselves and by getting a psychologist involved who will help the child overcome their psychological problems.

This will:
a) Decrease their general anxiety and agitation levels.
b) Teach children how to deal with difficult situations without demonstrating their vulnerability, with the help of psychological exercises.

If the child isn’t provided with the appropriate help, their health will suffer. They could get headaches and feelings of suffocation, depression, anxiety and fears, or start bedwetting, vomiting and so on.

A child brings joy and love to the family. There’s no doubt about it – they need both a loving mother and a loving father.

Children’s disturbed emotional state, their ‘bad’ behaviour and sometimes even their health problems, are usually a result of some other familial ‘illness’. Family and marital problems, as well as the problems of the individual parents are not their own private matter, but a significant factor in a child’s personal development.



By Public Health Foundation of Georgia (PHF)