By Raising Children Network
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Research suggests that parental conflict can interfere with the way babies and toddlers bond with their parents.
Children do adapt when their parents separate, but ongoing conflict between parents can really hurt them. It’s important that you and your ex-partner handle any conflict in a healthy way.

Conflict between parents – and how you deal with it – is one of the most important factors affecting your child’s wellbeing.

The fighting that can occur during a relationship breakdown seems to have an especially big effect on kids. Sometimes arguments between parents lead to swearing, name-calling or physical or mental abuse. This is very likely to cause distress and difficulties for children. If your child is exposed to these kinds of arguments he might become quiet and withdrawn, stop trying new things, feel overwhelmed or act out at child care, kinder or school.

Your child wants to love both parents, and when there’s conflict she might feel that she has to choose. She might also be worried that you won’t like her if she shows her love for the parent you’re angry with. Children should never have to take sides.

It’s possible for parents to listen to each other and talk respectfully to sort out differences. This can actually teach children valuable life skills.

Children do best when the parent they live with has come to terms with separation and other issues with an ex-partner. You can make this happen by thinking of your new parenting partnership as a business arrangement, made for the benefit of your kids. If this is difficult for you, counselling can help.

Tips to protect your children from conflict

  • Try to stay polite and respectful with your child’s other parent. Have quick chats in public places, such as your child care centre or child’s school – it might be easier to stay polite in these places.
  • If you must have a difficult conversation, or you think things might get heated, do it somewhere your child can’t hear you. If talking face to face is likely to lead to conflict, use SMS or email. You could also try a shared journal that travels between houses to share important information about your child, instead of having to talk directly to the other parent.
  • If you don’t handle a situation well, try to repair any damage.
  • Speak or write to your former partner directly, rather than asking your child to be a messenger.
  • When you do communicate, keep the focus on your child’s needs and achievements. Your child will feel reassured knowing that both parents are interested in his wellbeing.
  • Avoid asking your child intrusive questions about her other parent, or asking her to keep any information from the other parent.
  • Remind yourself that your child loves both parents, not just you. Try to avoid making negative conversations about your ex-partner – it’s your child’s parent you’re discussing, and it hurts him to hear bad things. If you need to vent, do it with a friend or therapist, or write it down then destroy it.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support when you need it, whether it’s financial, practical or emotional. Single parents who get support use more positive parenting strategies and are better able to cope than those who try to ‘go it alone’.
  • Even when it isn’t easy, try to share with your child the good parts of the relationship you had with your former partner. Have fun with your child, and be willing to hear about the fun she has with the other parent.
  • Realise that you and your ex-partner can make each other’s lives miserable if you want to. In the end, though, this will impact on your own happiness as much as anyone else’s. Try not to let conflict become part of a pattern.
  • Ease up or give in once in a while. Great things can happen when ex-partners stop relating in a negative way. Do it for yourself and your children – after all, you’re all connected for life.


If you’re in a relationship that involves violence, seek support and do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of you and your children. You can read more in our article More than arguments: domestic violence.
  • Last updated or reviewed 25-10-2011
  • Acknowledgements

    Article developed in collaboration with Elly Robinson, Australian Institute of Family Studies, and in collaboration with Dr Richard Fletcher, Leader, Fathers and Families Research Program.

    Based on material produced for Single mothers: A resource for parenting solo, a publication by the Parenting Research Centre in collaboration with the Council of Single Mothers and funded by the Victorian Government Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.