Features

The impact of parental conflict on children

01 November 2017

Children can be the silent victims when their parents’ relationship goes sour, reports journalist Phil Harris. But with the right awareness, it doesn’t have to be that way…

Sophie* from London will never forget the night her husband Rob* admitted he was having an affair.

‘I thought it was a joke at first. Then came a massive wave of shock, disbelief, rage and despair. I felt it was the ultimate betrayal – not just of me, but our whole “team” – our 12-year-old son, twin girls aged five, and our 12-month-old baby.’

The next six months were a rollercoaster ride as the couple tried to make things work. But every discussion soon descended into shouting and resentment, with most of it played out in front of the children, she says. ‘The kids would plead with us to stop, or just run and hide.’ Eventually Rob moved out.

‘I think it hit my son the hardest,’ Sophie continues. ‘And in ways I didn’t expect. He started being very hard on my girls, like getting angry with them for wasting food and acting like he was their father. He became very bitter about Rob and wouldn’t even be in the same room. I didn’t do much to discourage that, if I’m being honest.’

The impact on children when relationships break down has been in the spotlight of late, courtesy of the hit TV drama series Dr Foster, in which a couple’s once-happy marriage slowly unravels, and their angry and confused son becomes violent, behaves inappropriately towards girls, gets excluded from school and eventually runs away from home.

And like all good dramas, it hits home because there’s more than a kernel of truth to the story. 

 

Counting the cost

Clearly it’s impossible to know how many children are affected by parental discord, but some insights can be gained from divorce levels, and in 2015 there were 101,055 in England and Wales, with around 100,000 children involved every year (Office for National Statistics, 2017). 

There are also around 10,000 divorces each year in Scotland (National Records of Scotland, 2017) and more than 2000 in Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, 2017). Plus there are also many unmarried couples with children who separate, so the real number of families and children affected by parental relationship breakdown across the UK will be significantly higher.

Of course divorce isn’t the only time when children can feel adverse effects of their parents’ relationship. According to the NSPCC, in 2015-16 there were more than 39,000 sessions provided by Childline counsellors for children across the UK in relation to family relationships and problems in the home. Nearly one in five (18%) of these took place during the school summer holidays when families spend more time at home together.

The NSPCC says callers commonly report feeling depressed, lonely and isolated. Worryingly, some young people felt their family life was so unhappy they were considering running away from home or even harming themselves.

One of the older children callers said: ‘I feel scared and upset when I see my parents argue. Sometimes they swear and scream at each other and other times they hit each other. It triggers my depression and I start to self-harm to cope.’

Family problems, including parental conflict or separation, are second only to low self-esteem and unhappiness as the main reason children call Childline.

 

The true impact

Parental conflict can have many negative consequences for children, and this often means emotional or behavioural difficulties. There is a considerable body of research on the subject, going back almost 90 years. 

There is a strong evidence base to show that children’s social relationships suffer, as they become more likely to develop poor interpersonal skills (Harold et al, 2007) which can cause difficulties for the child in getting on with other children, their parents and grandparents, their siblings, and teachers.

In later life this can mean they are less likely to be able to form successful relationships with romantic partners. It is also linked to anxiety, depression, aggression, hostility, antisocial behaviour and criminality (Harold et al, 2007). 

School life can be affected, with children of warring parents being less able to settle and more likely to struggle to make friends. They are also less likely to achieve academically due to the impact on their cognitive abilities (Tavistock Relationships, 2016).

The effects can be physical, too. Research shows that children of conflicted parents have a higher risk of health problems including digestive illnesses, fatigue, reduced physical growth, headaches and abdominal pains. They may also have problems sleeping (Tavistock Relationships, 2016).

Dr Sarah Helps, a consultant clinical psychologist at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust and the Association for Family Therapy, says she has seen these issues constantly during the 25 years she has spent working with families.

‘Obviously it’s a very common experience that parents don’t always get on, and sometimes relationships break down.’

‘[But] if parents are saying nasty things to each other in front of the children, or saying negative things to the children about each other, then that puts the child in a very difficult and stressful position, and causes considerable anxiety.’

Children may then mirror what they have experienced at home in other environments, such as being confrontational with other children or teachers, refusing to co-operate or being disaffected. They may be jumpy, watchful or on edge, ready for something bad to happen. 

She adds that often children worry about their parents’ relationship but feel helpless or even to blame for what is going on at home.

‘Sometimes it can be better for the kids in the long run if the family breaks up.’

There is also a body of evidence that parental discord, particular at the more extreme end of the spectrum, can affect the architecture and chemistry of the developing brain, leading to difficulties in how affected children deal with relationships in future (van Goosen et al, 2008).

 

An alternative path

Thankfully, relationship issues don’t automatically mean there will be a negative effect on children. ‘The impact on a child primarily depends on how the adults are able to resolve their arguments between themselves and how they are able to model the skills to do this,’ says Dr Helps.
‘What children need is a story, an account that makes sense to them.’

And it’s the unresolved conflict in particular that is damaging. Dr Helps explains: ‘All parents argue at some point and most kids turn out ok. But there can be negative and damaging consequences if the conflicts are not being resolved.’ 

She says that children exposed to arguments do not necessarily suffer as long as their parents are showing that they can resolve them, such as through compromise or agreement.

Nicole Hobson, a Family Nurse Partnership supervisor in Suffolk, agrees that while conflict is normal in all relationships, the amount and nature of that exposure is important in determining how children are affected. 

‘If this becomes a regular normal experience, children will internalise this as normal, and think that conflict is dealt with in that way. Parents are models of behaviour, and children mirror what they observe and are exposed to. If it becomes internalised, this becomes the child’s internal working model.’

Nicole adds that having a baby has a dramatic impact on all parents, and this can be a key time when relationship difficulties arise. 

 

How professionals can help

Health professionals such as health visitors and school nurses are well placed to help families suffering from conflict.

They need to be mindful of and look out for obvious signs, such as poor communication between parents and a lack of togetherness or joint parenting, and not being afraid to ask about any such difficulties.

This can give parents an opportunity to talk about how conflict may be affecting them and their children. This in itself can often be of enormous benefit and relief to people who may have been struggling with such issues for a long time. 

‘It is important to raise awareness with parents [of how their conflict may affect their children] and talk about challenges at each contact, and to be curious,’ says Nicole. 

‘When it comes to having a baby, professionals need to be open in discussing how this is affecting the relationship, both positively and negatively. They can play a vital role in devising strategies to help and support.’

School nurse Claire Elwell, in Tyne and Wear, says the role of school nurses is crucial in this area, as they are a trusted authority figure children can approach, and are well placed to intervene.

‘Children will often try to protect their parents and become secretive. But kids [still] hear everything. They learn from adult behaviour and the sad fact is that negative behaviour can then play out throughout these children’s lives, with the process repeated. 

‘In some cases I have to point out the impact to parents as they haven’t acknowledged it. In other cases the child comes to me for advice on how to handle situations. Sometimes they might have been brought in for behaviour or health, and during assessment parental relationship problems are brought up. 

‘We can offer early help directly and promptly, and we can discover and identify issues. This is all about careful and tactful communications, being child focused and keeping their needs central.’

Claire says that school nurses can be instrumental in arranging early referral to mental health specialists where necessary, but the day-to-day intervention is also vital. 

‘The main thrust should be talking to kids, age appropriately and helping them understand what’s happening. It’s important to make sure they don’t think it’s their fault, and that they are loved. All professionals should have this insight.’


Domestic abuse – the impact on children

This article focuses on the impact of non-violent parental discord such as repeated arguing and verbal hostility, silence and emotional withdrawal. Domestic abuse is of course a different matter altogether, with immediate safety considerations for adults and children alike. 

Statistics suggest that 6.5 million adults in England and Wales have experienced domestic abuse (ONS, 2016), and 20% of children have been exposed to it (Radford et al, 2011). Many children cope with and survive abuse, displaying extraordinary resilience. But the physical, psychological and emotional effects can be severe and long-lasting. Experts say domestic abuse is one of the most serious risks to children in our society (Refuge, 2017). 

Consequently calls are growing for more action. In September this year, Ofsted called for more focus on children in cases of domestic abuse and a greater awareness of how it affects their wellbeing. And in October NICE issued guidance on child abuse and neglect, including advice on how to identify ‘soft’ signs. 

Resources

Department of Health. (2017) Guidance for practitioners: bit.ly/DH_guidance

National domestic violence freephone helpline (24 hour): 0808 2000 247


 

Pearls of wisdom

Not all conflict is the same in its severity, and so it is perhaps understandable that some practitioners may feel reluctant to open up the issues relating to couple distress for fear of not knowing what they can offer.

Social embarrassment or concern about social services getting involved can also mean that parents may try to keep their discord secret from outsiders, but Dr Helps says there are many telltale signs professionals can watch out for. 

‘Some signs in children are obvious, such as changes in behaviour – becoming more aggressive or tearful when they are not usually like that. Younger children can become much more clingy, or even much less so because they don’t feel they trust the adult to love them back.’

She adds that bedwetting is common, even in children who have previously been dry for some time.

‘The effects on children can be subtle but they are there to see if you look out for them. For example, when one parent is slagging off the other one, the child can pick this up and start using language that doesn’t sound like it belongs to them.’

There are other signs of neglect, such as changes in who is taking children to school or nursery, and of course changes in appearance such as dirty clothes. Any signs of potential neglect, abuse or domestic violence should be cause for significant concern (see domestic abuse box).

Practitioners can also help to signpost families to the many sources of support, online and across the UK (see resources) and reassure them they will not be judged.

For Sophie, the growing impact on the children was a ‘cold shower’ that prompted her and Rob to try to improve the situation. ‘My health visitor came round one day and it all came pouring out of me, all the things I was seeing in the kids. I realised that being bitter wasn’t helping any of us, so I talked to Rob and we agreed that we needed to stay calm and be respectful to each other, and show the kids we were in control and things could be stable.

‘She helped me to explain it to them in a way that made sense – that although we had stopped loving each other, it didn’t mean we had stopped loving them, and that it was fine for all of us to feel sad and angry about it, but we were still their parents. They needed a story that made sense to them.

‘In the end we split up, but things have definitely improved. My son now meets up with Rob and his girlfriend, and the girls seem happier.

‘It’s not always easy, but we’re still a family – just a bit different to what we used to be.’

*Names have been changed


Resources

Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice:
Offers advice and training on relationships and counselling www.aft.org.uk 

Early Intervention Foundation: Carries out research and provides resources eif.org.uk 

One Plus One: A charity dedicated to research and training on family relationships. Provides courses for professionals oneplusone.space 

Solihull Approach: training and resources for practitioners solihullapproachparenting.com 

These can also be highlighted to parents:

Family Lives (familylives.org.uk) in England and Wales, Children 1st Scotland (children1st.org.uk) and Parenting Northern Ireland (parentingni.org)

NSPCC: Resources on safeguarding
nspcc.org.uk. Children can call Childline (0800 1111) or visit childline.org.uk 

Relate: UK-wide counselling relate.org.uk 

Tavistock Relationships: parenting groups for couples and training courses for professionals tavistockrelationships.org


References 

Department of Health. (2013) Health Visiting and School Nursing Programmes: supporting implementation of the new service model. No.5: domestic violence and abuse – professional guidance. See: bit.ly/2i4uFeM (accessed 25 October 2017).

Harold GT, Aitken JJ, Shelton KH. (2007) Inter-parental conflict and children’s academic attainment: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 48(12): 1223-32.

National Records of Scotland. (2017) Divorces time series data. See: bit.ly/2yKYgnQ (accessed 25 October 2017).

NICE. (2017) Child abuse and neglect. NICE guideline (NG76). See: bit.ly/2xokckv (accessed 25 October 2017).

Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. (2017) Divorces in Northern Ireland, 1971-2015. See: bit.ly/2h6NduT (accessed 25 October 2017).

Radford L et al. (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. NSPCC: London.

Office for National Statistics. (2016) Domestic abuse in England and Wales. See: bit.ly/2z6pIgj (accessed 25 October 2017).

Office for National Statistics. (2017) Statistical bulletin: Divorces in England and Wales: 2015. See: bit.ly/2yNhwAm (accessed 25 October 2017).

Ofsted. (2017) The multi-agency response to children living with domestic abuse. See: bit.ly/2xnCG4K (accessed 25 October 2017).

Refuge. (2017) Effects of domestic violence on children. See: bit.ly/2y66LWe (accessed 25 October 2017).

Reynolds J, Houlston C, Coleman L, Harold G. (2014) Parental conflict: outcomes and interventions for children and families. See: bit.ly/2h9h5H6 (accessed 25 October 2017).

Tavistock Relationships. (2016) The impact of couple conflict on children. Policy briefing. See: bit.ly/2yNAJ3j (accessed 25 October 2017).

van Goozen S, Fairchild G, Harold GT. (2008) The role of neurobiological deficits in childhood antisocial behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science 17(3): 224-8.

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