By Parenting Research Centre
spacer spacer PInterest spacer
spacer Print spacer Email
Conflict is a natural part of relationships, especially as you face the challenges of parenting. When you work together to sort out conflict, you build happy, healthy relationships and teach your children important life skills.

The role of conflict in family life

Conflict happens in families. Its effects on children all depend on the level and frequency of the conflict, and the way it’s resolved. So managing it in constructive ways is important – for your children, your relationship and the happiness of the entire family. 

When conflict is useful
Children aren’t born knowing how to handle conflict, so occasional arguments are unlikely to cause lasting harm if they’re handled well.

In fact, seeing you work together to resolve issues teaches your children valuable skills. For example, by working together to resolve differences, you show your children how to negotiate and solve problems effectively. This also teaches children that difference and conflict are a part of life.

It can also be reassuring when you show optimism that a problem will be worked out, as can a simple explanation of how you’ve resolved a disagreement.

When conflict is a problem
The difficulty comes when parents fight a lot and don’t resolve their differences. This can be distressing and harmful for children. The more parents argue, the more it affects children. Severe and frequent conflict can lead to a higher risk of emotional, behavioural and social problems. Children are more likely to be disobedient and to experience problems such as depression, aggression, or poor performance at school.

Unhealthy conflict affects children badly, whether parents are together or separated. Even when there’s no arguing, any frosty silences, discord, anger or unspoken hostility can cause distress.

Conflict can be particularly harmful if it involves abuse, threats or disputes about a child in front of the child. Physical violence makes things even worse. Children who grow up seeing physical violence are more likely to experience personal and social problems as adults.

How children are affected by parental conflict

Some children cope better with conflict than others. Factors such as temperament and age make a difference. So does the type and frequency of the conflict.

Younger children are more likely to show that they’re upset. Throwing tantrums, or becoming more difficult to manage, might be signs of stress. Older children might experience social problems such as depression and negative self-esteem.

Some research suggests that gender plays a part in how children cope with conflict. Boys are more likely to feel threatened by their parents’ arguments, and to respond by acting up, or becoming disobedient or aggressive. Girls tend to blame themselves and become withdrawn.

Tips for managing conflict

Ideas Things to do
Avoid arguing in front of children.

Save heated discussions for behind closed doors. Make a time to discuss problems when the children aren’t with you – for example, after bedtime, or when they’re at school or visiting grandparents.

Let your children see you discussing issues in a constructive way.
  • Take turns talking.
  • Try to understand your partner’s feelings or perspective.
  • Try to hear the positive in your partner’s message.
  • Share your feelings with your partner. 
  • Be polite.
  • Brainstorm possible solutions.

Even when you’re having problems with your partner, keep a good relationship with your children.

  • Do things with your children that they enjoy.
  • Tell them when they do things you like.
  • Give them a hug – be affectionate.
  • Talk with your children about things that interest them and what theyre doing and feeling.
  • Be available – whenever possible, stop what youre doing so you can help, listen or talk to your children.
Be clear with your children that theyre not the cause of your disagreements.
  • Tell your children that the issues arent about them and that the grown-ups are sorting it out.
  • Let your children know that youre trying to find a solution to the problem.
  • Continue to spend positive time with your children – remind them that you love them.
  • Encourage your partner to keep a positive relationship with your children.
  • Dont feel you have to tell your children what the issue is. Some problems are for grown-up ears only.
If you’re in a relationship that involves violence, seek professional help and do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of you and your children.
  • Last updated or reviewed 30-08-2011
  • Acknowledgements The Parents and Teamwork series was produced with support from the Victorian Government Department of Human Services. © Copyright Victorian Government Department of Human Services 2005