Why fighting affects your children – and how to argue better

Life, children, work, money… parents today face so many stresses that it’s not surprising if sometimes we find ourselves taking it out on each other. But while disagreements, and even occasional arguing, within a relationship is quite normal, how we argue can have a massive impact on the way it affects our children.

A new book, Parental conflict: Outcomes and interventions for children and families by Jenny Reynolds, Catherine Houlston, Lester Coleman and Gordon Harold from relationship charity OnePlusOne, looks at research published over the past 12 years to give insight into why conflict matters, how it can affect our children, and how we can learn healthier ways of arguing to help protect our children.

How we can learn to argue without hurting our children

Dr Catherine Houlston, co-author of the book explains that it’s not whether you argue but how you argue which matters most to kids. Research suggests that over time, the impact of being exposed to arguing between their parents can put children’s physical health at risk. Evidence has shown that headaches, abdominal pains and even reduced growth can be brought on by the insecurity a child can feel by seeing their parents at war.

However, not all arguing has a negative outcome. If a child sees their parents in conflict then work things out, they understand it’s possible for difficult situations to be resolved and they feel more secure. Evidence suggests that working with couples at an early stage in their relationship, or during times of change, can help to modify destructive patterns of conflict behaviour.

To find out more, we asked Dr Houlston what types of arguing are the most damaging to children, and how we can learn to disagree and resolve problems in a more healthy way for the whole family.

Why do couples need to be careful about arguing around their children?

Some degree of arguing and disagreement is normal within families. It is not conflict per se but how couples argue which matters most to children. Children exposed to conflict between parents are at risk of a range of negative outcomes including emotional and behavioural difficulties, trouble getting on with others, problems settling and achieving at school, sleep difficulties, and poorer health.

How can arguing affect children?

Conflict between parents affects children in two key ways. Firstly, conflict impacts how couples parent and the quality of relationship between parent and child. Parenting may be affected in a number of ways, with parents adopting a range of behaviours, from highly intrusive and hostile parenting through to lax, disinterested parenting, all of which are associated with negative developmental outcomes for children.

Secondly, how children understand, experience and respond to conflict between parents is also important. Different theories have been put forward to specify the exact nature in which children’s reactions to conflict affect their wellbeing. Key elements include:

  • How children make sense of and understand inter-parental conflict.
  • Their emotional reactions to it, such as fear, anger, or sadness.
  • How conflict affects children’s sense of security in their relationship with each parent and the relationship between the parents.
  • How children behave in response to their understanding and feelings.
  • The physiological reactions conflict triggers.

Is all arguing equal, or are some habits worse than others?

How conflict is handled is of primary importance when explaining child outcomes. Important aspects are the intensity of the conflict, the negativity expressed, or emotional tone, the behaviours parents adopt towards one another, the topic of conflict, and if and how things are resolved.

Conflict between parents can place children at risk when it is frequent, unresolved, intense, or about the child. Children are particularly upset when they or issues relevant to them are the subject of an argument.

What are some key destructive arguing traits?

Destructive conflict involves behaviours that evoke negative reactions in children, and is typically characterised by the following primary features:

  • Physical aggression – children are particularly troubled by physical violence between parents and this behaviour is most strongly linked to adjustment problems.
  • Verbal hostility – children are also upset by verbal hostility, such as shouting, threats, and raised voices. When parents are verbally aggressive towards one another children may become scared, angry or sad and, over time, these reactions have been linked with psychological adjustment problems.
  • The silent treatment or nonverbal conflict – children can be as troubled by sulky conflicts, where parents give each other ‘the silent treatment’, as they are by overtly angry exchanges. One reason is that sulky, silent behavior suggests to children that the disagreement will not get sorted out and children are left worrying about what that means for the stability of the family.
  • Intense conflicts – unsurprisingly, intense or heated arguments are generally more disturbing for children than milder disputes. However, it is important to distinguish between conflicts that are merely expressive or emotional because of the character of each spouse and their relationship, and arguments that are wrought with feelings of contempt, scorn or criticism.
  • When one partner withdraws – children are particularly concerned when parents withdraw or walk away from an argument. It is possible that children are troubled by parental withdrawal because they are sensitive to the seriousness of marital problems and concerned that parents may separate
  • Conflicts about children – conflict is particularly distressing for children when they, or issues relevant to them, are the subject of dispute. One reason child-related conflicts are more harmful is that children may be more likely to get involved because they feel responsible for, and ashamed about, what is going on.

And what are some constructive ones?

Couples who continue to hold on to more positive ways of relating in the midst of heated conflicts, and who can find ways to resolve an argument, are less vulnerable to relationship breakdown and their children are less at risk of developing emotional or behavioural difficulties.

Children may be less troubled by conflict when parents are able to resolve an argument. However, this ‘resolution’ needs to be genuine. Children are not fooled when parents tell them things have been sorted out but fail to relate to each other in ways that demonstrate that the relationship has been repaired. Parents’ actions need to echo their words. There is emerging evidence that children can learn behaviours that are helpful in their relationships with others from observing parents handling conflict well, however, further research is required to confirm and expand our understanding of this.

How should parents explain arguing to their children?

The extent to which children understand why their parents are arguing will vary depending on their developmental age, among other things. It may be useful for children to understand that disagreements between people, including their parents can happen. If children see their parents resolve difficulties effectively they may develop useful ways to solve their own conflicts with others later.

Parents can also help to reassure children’s sense of security by showing that because they are arguing doesn’t mean that they don’t love each other and their children. Actions can reinforce the verbal messages given to children, so children can learn by their parents modelling constructive conflict behaviours and relating to each other more positively, even when disagreeing. 

How honest should parents be with children about their arguing?

Children can pick up on and be affected by conflict even when it is thought to have been hidden, particularly if there is an atmosphere of resentment and hostility. What is particularly important to children’s outcomes is that they are not felt brought into the middle of their parents arguments, such as being the topic of the argument or being asked or expected to take sides with a parent.

What can parents do if they’re worried their children have been affected by their arguing?

It is important to remember that it is not whether or not you argue which matters to children, but how you do it. Parents can help their children by not putting the child in the middle of their arguments, and by trying to resolve their differences or at least trying to maintain some positive affection during and after an argument.

If parents are worried they argue often in a destructive way and want help to argue more constructively they can seek support by talking to a health practitioner or family support worker.

OnePlusOne also provides a free online course for couples called ‘How to Argue Better’, which is based on the findings of the research review. This is available  through Couple Communication, a relationship support service for couples. Parents who have separated and having difficulty agreeing on child care issues may benefit from the new interactive parenting plan Splitting Up? Put Kids First, which includes videos on destructive conflict and ways things could be improved.

What can parents expect to learn from your book?

The book is primarily aimed at practitioners and those who work with families. It is to help them understand why conflict between parents matters to children and how they can help support couples experiencing conflict. This review will also be of interest to parents who are interested in what the research tells us about the impact of conflict on children and looking at better ways to argue.

If parents would like to learn more, they can read further information here, and get tips on how to stop arguments escalating here.

When and how can parents buy your book?

Parental conflict: Outcomes and interventions for children and families by Jenny Reynolds, Catherine Houlston, Lester Coleman and Gordon Harold is published by Policy Press on 31 January 2014 price £16.99. You can buy it with a 20% discount from Policy Press.

Need one-to-one advice or support? You can talk online in confidence to a helper with a counselling background for up to 15 minutes between 9-10pm in the Couple Connection’s Listening Room.