Parental Conflict Has a Negative Impact on Their Children
My parents were unhappy, angry people who I believe suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrors they suffered during World War II. They sometimes were verbally and physically abusive. Over time, I have recognized how the abuse negatively impacted my mental health such as creating low self-esteem, a fear of rejection, depression, and resentment.
I have also realized that their constant arguments had a negative impact on my life. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my parents’ loud arguments when my friends came over. Luckily, I could sneak my friends upstairs to my room through a separate hallway while my parents shouted in the living room on the other side of the wall. Some of my friends worried about our safety because my parents’ voices sounded aggressive and threatening. I had to reassure my friends that it was just a verbal argument that happened all the time.
Most of their conflict seemed to center around financial problems and my father’s explosive temper, which sometimes got him into trouble at work and in his personal life. My parents’ raised voices sent me spiraling into fear, anxiety, insecurity and shame. I avoided them so that their anger did not spill onto me.
University of Vermont Research
According to a study by the University of Vermont (UV), conflict between parents alone can do lasting emotional damage to their children. Researchers studied how 99 children between the ages of 9 and eleven reacted to 90 photographs of couples who were interacting in neutral, happy, and angry ways. The participants were asked to categorize the emotions they saw.
Kids from low conflict homes could identify the emotions shown in the photos. Those who perceived conflict as a threat and experienced high conflict levels and could identify angry and happy couples, but not those in neutral poses. The children from high conflict homes incorrectly interpreted couples in neutral poses as being either happy or angry, or were unable to fit them into a category.
Shyness also influences the kid’s perceptions. I was shy and awkward as a child, making me more vulnerable to the negative effects of my parents’ constant shouting and arguing. The VT research found that kids like me were highly inaccurate in discerning the emotions of the people in photos who were in neutral poses.
Negative Effects On Children of Parental Conflict
Anxiety, fear, and shame
Every time I saw or heard my parents fighting and yelling at each other, I would tense up. My mind would be flooded with worse case scenarios – are my parents going to break up? Is our family financial situation so bad that we will become poor? My anxieties would stir up all kinds of fear. Since my parents also be verbally abusive, I was also afraid that their anger would be redirected towards me after aggressive arguments. Their shouting sometimes felt like a physical assault.
I also felt embarrassed and ashamed when friends came over and heard my parents arguing at the top of their lungs. Fortunately, a wall separated the living room and front hallway in my house. I could sneak my friends upstairs to my room. One time, a friend was afraid because of the raised voices and asked me if I was sure that her being there was OK. I reassured her that we would be safe upstairs. I began to realize that what was normal for me was not normal for my peers.
Like many children who experience high levels of threat and conflict, I was always watching for signs that a storm was on the horizon. UV researchers speculate that this type of hypervigilance could interfere with children’s ability to process and interpret neutral people’s expressions.
Negative coping behaviors
Some children may blame themselves for their parents’ rages. They may think that if they were better people, their parents would not be fighting. Others may become angry or act out in harmful ways such as being sarcastic with others. According to Kathy Hardie-Williams, a therapist and mental health counselor, parental conflict, and martial dissatisfaction is often the root of their children's social challenges or their acting out behavior.
Misinterpreting neutral human interactions
Strong emotions can give clear messages about a parent’s state of mind. If my parents were in an angry mood and/or fighting with each other, I would avoid them by either leaving the house or retreating into my room. If they were happy, I was wary but felt more comfortable talking to them. VT researchers speculate that children from high conflict homes may ignore neutral emotional expressions because they offer little information or are not considered valuable.
Parents are not available emotionally
Arguments are exhausting and draining so parents may withdraw from their children for a time. They may focus on their issues and not pay much attention to their offspring.
A lack of social and problem-solving skills
When parents are constantly arguing, shouting, and denigrating each other, they are setting a negative example for their children. Their kids in turn, may demonstrate poor social skills as a result. They may struggle later in life with romantic and other relationships.
Parental conflict is a natural part of life. When parents can disagree and work through their issues, they set an example of healthy problem-solving strategies for their children. They are demonstrating supportive parenting in action.
When parents are not able to resolve their issues, however, their children may experience anxiety, fear, anger, and act out. When faced with conflict later in life, their kids may lack the skills to accurately assess other people’s state of mind and to solve relationship problems.
In my case, continual parental conflict lead to my parents’ divorce. Fortunately, I had friends and peers in adulthood who modeled healthy problem-solving skills that helped me navigate relationship difficulties.
Study: Parental conflict can do lasting damage to kids, University of Vermont
The Insidious Impact of Parental Conflict on Child Behavior, GoodTherapy.org, Kathy Hardle-Williams
How Parental Conflict Hurts Kids, IFS, Anna Sutherland
Parents: How You Manage Conflict Has an Impact on Your Kids, University of Arizona